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Between appeasement and confrontation.

datePosted on 16:00, May 14th, 2021 by Pablo

The worm has turned when it comes to the relationship between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the West. Something has happened to sour the relationship beyond repair, and the strains are not limited to US-PRC, Australian-PRC or UK-PRC bilateral relations. Other countries, notably in the EU and Southeast Asia and including traditional rival India, have replaced two decades of offering warmth and goodwill with increasingly frosty and suspicious attitudes towards the PRC. That seems to be due to a combination of PRC militarism and belligerence in places like the South China Sea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Line of Control in the Himalayas separating it from India, but also as a result of Chinese sharp power influence operations in liberal democracies, its coercive trade diplomacy, ongoing Chinese cyber espionage, cyber theft and cyber warfare campaigns launched against a swathe of countries (including New Zealand), its dollar and debt diplomacy in Africa and South America where debt for equity swaps are accompanied by the colonisation by Chinese labor of critical infrastructure sites in countries lacking the resources to undertake large scale projects like port modernisation or power generation, and the adoption of “wolf warrior” diplomacy where insults and bullying have become mainstays of PRC diplomatic discourse, particularly but not limited to the issue of human rights and adherence to international norms.

With regards to the latter, in some cases Chinese behaviour is so egregious, such as stationing hundreds of fishing boats outside the marine reserve surrounding the Galapagos Islands or off the southeastern and southwestern coasts of South America and Southern Africa, often using the cover of night to poach in the Exclusive Economic Zones (when not territorial waters) of various countries, that countries otherwise prone to welcome the PRC as an antidote to traditional US or colonial power dominance have started to review their positions with regards to it.

The faith once placed in incorporating the PRC as a good global citizen into the community of advanced nations by admitting it into international organisations such as the World Trade Organisation and giving it leadership roles in others like the World Health Organisation and various UN agencies has not yielded the results that were hoped for. Instead, the errors of so-called modernisation theorists of the 1950s were repeated: rather than encouraging Chinese democracy by exposing it to “Western” values and helping expand its middle class on the back of increased international trade opportunities and the corresponding rise in material opportunities associated with it–something that was thought would lead to a better appreciation by and reproduction of democratic values by those emerging middle classes who would grow to see democracy as the political equivalent of the “free” economic market–under Xi Jinping the PRC has become more authoritarian, more state capitalist, more territorially expansionist, more normatively untrustworthy and more militarily bellicose. Instead of a global good citizen, it is now increasingly seen in the West as a very large bully on the world stage.

This does not absolve the US and various colonial powers of their histories. But it points to the fact that the thirty year period of relative inter-state peace after the end of the Cold War is coming to its conclusion. What lies ahead is unknown but it is likely to be marked by conflict of one sort or another or a combination thereof. The strategic postures of the US, UK, France and Australia all now explicitly identify the PRC as the primary military “peer competitor” (i.e. the enemy) that they must prepare to fight. Even NZ’s defense posture has shifted from unconventional warfare scenarios against irregular non-state actors to involvement in interstate conflicts (although the focus on peacekeeping operations remains). Reflected in defense procurement programs over the next ten years, the shift in war planning is answered by Chinese redoubling of its efforts to expand its fleet and improve the sophistication and size of its land and air-based forces. It also has renewed its bilateral military ties with Russia and courted the alliance of a variety of strategically important authoritarians regimes such as Iran and Turkey. It seems that it is only a matter of time before either by miscalculation, misperception or misadventure it will be involved in an armed engagement with a Western or Western-backed adversary, at which point the escalatory and expansionist potential of such conflict is limited only by the threat of nuclear war.

This puts small states like NZ between a rock and hard place. The diplomatic pressure is being felt in Wellington and Nanaia Mahuta’s speech to the China and New Zealand Business Council reflected the attempts to massage the stresses now apparent in its relationship with the PRC. The question is whether NZ can continue to employ its “softly-softly” approach in the face of the Western turn against the PRC and the latter’s increasingly acerbic responses to criticism of its actions at home and abroad. There can be little doubt that at this juncture if push comes to shove NZ will side with the West as a matter of values and principle. It has signalled as much and, with its commitment to diversifying its trade relations outside of the bilateral ties with the PRC, is setting the pragmatic grounds for doing so even if the short term costs of any deterioration in the relationship with the PRC proves onerous and wide-spread throughout the economy. But so long as the quarrel between Great Powers is limited to podiums and pens, then NZ can hope to finesse the contradictions in its strategic posture.

The answer on how to do so may lay in thinking of NZ’s position in the face of the US/West-PRC rivalry as a strategic balancing act in which the fixed points are appeasement versus confrontation and the slackline between the two is cooperation. The key is to find an equilibrium point along that line given specific issues and changing circumstances. There is plenty of common ground for NZ to serve as a honest broker and fair interlocutor when it comes to PRC-West relations even as it reaffirms its commitment to Western liberal values. Pragmatism and principle will undoubtably factor into the centre of gravity upon which to balance NZ foreign policy in that regard. The goal is to be nimble when demonstrating a desire to cooperate on selected issues given the competing demands by trade and security partners to appease or confront each other. Sometimes the equilibrium point may be closer to the PRC position, sometimes it will tilt in favour of the Western stance. They key to success lies in refraining from entering into broadly binding agreements or commitments and to adopt an issue-by-issue, case by case approach that serves to insulate any particular bilateral decision from the larger geopolitical struggles surrounding it.

That may turn out to not be feasible if the contending Great states do not accept NZ’s “siloed” approach and will not be a permanent foreign policy solution given the apparent inevitability of a Great Power stand-off in the medium term future. But it provides a means of finding the optimal equilibrium point on the diplomatic slackline that is NZs transitional position vis a vis China and the West until the new multipolar world system is firmly established.

Facing facts.

datePosted on 16:09, April 24th, 2021 by Pablo

The critical reaction of some conservative commentators and politicians about Nanaia Mahuta’s “Taniwha and Dragons” speech is focused on the double premise that NZ is “sucking up” to the PRC while it abandons its obligations to its 5 Eyes intelligence partners. Some have suggested that NZ is going to be kicked out of 5 Eyes because of its transgressions, and that the CCP is pulling the strings of the Labour government.

These views are unwarranted and seemingly born of partisan cynicism mixed with Sinophobia, racism and misogyny (because Mahuta is Maori and both Mahuta and PM Ardern are female and therefore singled out for specific types of derision and insult). Beyond the misinterpretations about what was contained in the speech, objections to Mahuta’s invocation of deities and mythological beasts misses the point. Metaphors are intrinsic to Pasifika identity (of which Maori are part) and serve to illustrate basic truths about the human condition, including those involved in international relations. As a wise friend said to me, imagine if a US Secretary of State was an indigenous person (such as Apache, Cherokee, Hopi, Mohican, Navaho, Sioux or Tohono O’odham). It is very possible that s/he would invoke ancestral myths in order to make a point on delicate foreign policy issues.

In any event, this post will clarify a few facts. First, on military and security issues covering the last two decades.

New Zealand has twin bilateral strategic and military agreements with the US, the first signed in 2010 (Wellington Declaration) and the second in 20012 (Washington Declaration). These committed the two countries to partnership in areas of mutual interest, particularly but not exclusively in the South Pacific. New Zealand sent troops to Afghanistan as part of the US-led and UN-mandated occupation after 9/11, a commitment that included NZSAS combat units as well as a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Bamiyan Province that mixed humanitarian projects with infantry patrols. More than 3500 NZDF troops were deployed in Afghanistan, at a cost of ten lives and $300 million.

Similarly, NZ sent troops to Iraq after the US invasion, serving in Basra as combat engineers in the early phase of the occupation, then later as infantry trainers for Iraqi security forces at Camp Taji. More than 1000 NZDF personnel were involved in these deployments, to which can be aded the SAS operators who deployed to fight Saddam Hussein’s forces and then ISIS in Iraq and Syria after its emergence. There are a small number of NZDF personnel serving in various liaison roles in the region as well, to which can be added 26 NZDF serving as peacekeepers in on the Sinai Penninsula (there are slightly more than 200 NZDF personnel serving overseas at the moment). In all of these deployments the NZDF worked with and now serves closely with US, UK and Australian military units. The costs of these deployments are estimated to be well over $150 million.

The NZDF exercises regularly with US, Australian and other allied partners, including the US-led RimPac naval exercises and Australian-led bi- and multilateral air/land/sea exercises such as Talisman Saber. It regularly hosts contingents of allied troops for training in NZ and sends NZDF personnel for field as well as command and general staff training in the US, Australia and UK. RNZN frigates are being upgraded in Canada and have contributed to US-led freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea (against PRC maritime territory extension projects) and anti-piracy and international sanctions enforcement missions in the Persian Gulf. Among the equipment purchases undertaken during the last two decades, the NZDF has bought Light Armoured Vehicles, the infamous “LAVs” (or Strykers, as they are known in the US), Bushmaster armoured personnel carriers, C-130J “Hercules” transport aircraft, P-8 “Poseidon” anti-submarine warfare and maritime surveillance aircraft, Javelin anti-tank portable missiles and a range of other weapons from 5 Eyes defence contractors. In fact, the majority of the platforms and equipment used by the NZDF are 5 Eyes country in origin, and in return NZ suppliers (controversially) sell MFAT-approved weapons components to Australia, the US, UK , NATO members, regional partners and some unsavoury Western-leaning regimes in the Middle East.

After the estrangement caused by the dissolution of the ANZUS defence alliance as a result of NZ’s non-nuclear decision in the mid-1980s, a rapprochement with the US began in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The 5th Labour government sought to capitalise on the moment and sent troops into Afghanistan and later Iraq using the cover of UN resolutions to deflect political attacks. That led to improved military-to-military relations between the US and NZ, something that has been deepened over the years by successive NZ governments. The intelligence relationship embodied in the Echelon/5 Eyes agreement was slightly curtailed but never ended even when ANZUS died, and gradually was restored as the main security partnership to which NZ was affiliated. Now the NZDF is considered a small but valued military and intelligence partner of the US and other 5 Eyes states, with the main complaints being (mostly from the Australians) that NZ does not spend enough on “defence’ (currently around 1.5 percent of GDP, up from 1.1 percent under the last National government, as opposed to 2.1 percent in Australia, up from 1.9 percent in 2019) or provide enough of its own strategic lift capability. The purchase of the C-130J’s will help on that score, and current plans are to replace the RNZAF 757 multirole aircraft in or around 2028.

The dispute over US warships visiting NZ because of the “neither confirm or deny” US policy regarding nuclear weapons on board in the face on NZ’s non-nuclear stance was put to rest when the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Sampson (DDG-102) participated in the RNZN 75th anniversary celebrations in November 2016 after an agreement between the then National government and US Department of Defense on assurances that it was not carrying or using nukes as weapons or for propulsion. As if to prove the point of bilateral reconciliation, on the way to the celebrations in Auckland DDG-102 diverted to provide humanitarian support to Kaikura earthquake relief efforts after the tremor of November 14th (the week-long anniversary fleet review involving foreign naval vessels began on on November 17th). A Chinese PLAN warship also participated in the anniversary Fleet Review, so the message conveyed by the first official NZ port visit by a US warship in 30 years was made explicitly clear to the PRC.

The fact is this: the relations between NZ and its 5 Eyes partners in the broader field of military security is excellent, stable and ongoing. That will not change anytime soon.

As for intelligence gathering, NZ is a core part of the 5 Eyes signals intelligence collection and analysis network. Over the years it has moved into the field of military signals intelligence gathering as well as technical and electronic intelligence-gathering more broadly defined. More recently, in light of the emergence of non-state terrorism and cyber warfare/espionage threats, the role of 5 Eyes has been upgraded and expanded to counter them. To that end, in the last decade NZ has received multiple visits from high-ranking intelligence officials from its partners that have dovetailed with technological upgrades across the spectrum of technical and electronic signals intelligence gathering. This includes addressing issues that have commercial and diplomatic sensitivities attached to them, such as the NZ decision to not proceed with Huawei involvement in its 5G broadband rollout after high level consultations with its 5 Eyes partners. More recently, NZ has been integrated into latest generation space-based intelligence collection efforts while the focus of the network returns to more traditional inter-state espionage with great power rivals like China and Russia (we shall leave aside for the moment the benefits that the GCSB and NZDF receive from Rocket Lab launches of US military payloads but we can assume that they are significant).

As routine practice, NZSIS and GCSB officers rotate through the headquarters of 5 Eyes sister agencies for training and to serve as liaison agents. Officers from those agencies do the same in NZ, and signals engineers and technicians from 5 Eyes partners are stationed at the collection stations at Waihopa and Tangimoana. GCSB and SIS personnel also serve overseas alongside 5 Eyes employees in conflict zones like Afghanistan and Iraq. While less standardised then the regular rotations between headquarters, these type of deployments are ongoing.

5 Eyes also maintains a concentric ring of intelligence partners that include France, Germany, Japan, Israel, and Singapore. These first-tier partners in turn use their respective capabilities to direct tactical and strategic intelligence towards 5 Eyes, thereby serving as the intelligence version of a “force multiplier” in areas of common interest. One such area is the PRC, which is now a primary focus of Western intelligence agencies in and outside of the Anglophone world. This common threat perception and futures forecasting orientation is shared by the NZ intelligence community and is not going to change anytime soon unless the PRC changes its behaviour in significant ways.

For its part, the PRC has no such complex and sophisticated intelligence networks with which to avail itself. It has intelligence partners in North Korea, Russia, Iran and other small states, but nothing on the order of 5 Eyes. As a result, it is much more reliant on human intelligence collection than its rivals in the 5 Eyes, something that has become a source of concern for the 5 Eyes community and NZ in particular (as the supposed weak link in the network and because of its economic reliance on China, of which more below). While the PRC (and Russia, Israel and Iran, to name some others) are developing their cyber warfare and espionage capabilities, the fact is that the PRC continues to rely most heavily on old-fashioned covert espionage and influence operations as well as relatively low tech signals intercepts for most of its foreign intelligence gathering. If I read intelligence reports correctly, NZ’s counter-espionage and intelligence efforts are focused on this threat.

In a word: NZ is committed to the 5 Eyes and has a largely Western-centric world view when it comes to intelligence matters even when it professes foreign policy independence on a range of issues. That is accepted by its intelligence partners, so transmission (of intelligence) will continue uninterrupted. It is in this light that Mahuta’s comments about NZ’s reluctance to expand 5 Eyes original remit (as an intelligence network) into a diplomatic coalition must be understood. There are other avenues, multilateral and bilateral, public and private, through which diplomatic signaling and posturing can occur.

That brings up the issue of trade. Rather than “sucking up” to China, the foreign minister was doing the reverse–she was calling for increased economic distance from it. That is because New Zealand is now essentially trade dependent on the PRC. Approximately 30 percent of NZ’s trade is with China, with the value and percentage of trade between the two countries more than tripling since the signing of the bilateral Free Trade Agreement in 2008. In some export industries like logging and crayfish fisheries, more than 75 percent of all exports go to the PRC, while in others (dairy) the figure hovers around 40 percent. The top four types of export from NZ to the PRC are dairy, wood and meat products (primary goods), followed by travel services. To that can be added the international education industry (considered part of the export sector), where Chinese students represent 47 percent of total enrollees (and who are a suspected source of human intelligence gathering along with some PRC business visa holders).

In return, the PRC exports industrial machinery, electronics (cellphones and computers), textiles and plastics to NZ. China accounts for one in five dollars spent on NZ exports and the total amount of NZ exports to China more than doubles that of the next largest recipient (Australia) and is more than the total amount in value exported to the next five countries (Australia, US, Japan, UK and Indonesia) combined. Even with the emergence of the Covid pandemic, the trend of increased Chinese share of NZ’s export markets has continued to date and is expected to do so in the foreseeable future.

Although NZ has attempted to diversify its exports to China and elsewhere, it remains dependent on primary good production for the bulk of export revenues. This commodity concentration, especially when some of the demand for export commodities are for all intents and purposes monopolised by the Chinese market, makes the NZ economy particularly vulnerable to a loss of demand, blockages or supply chain bottlenecks involving these products. Although NZ generates surpluses from the balance of trade with the PRC, its reliance on highly elastic primary export commodities that are dependent on foreign income-led demand (say, for proteins and housing for a growing Chinese middle class) makes it a subordinate player in a global commodity chain dominated by value-added production. That exposes it to political-diplomatic as well as economic shocks not always tied to market competition. Given the reliance of the entire economy on primary good exports (which are destined mainly for Asia and within that region, the PRC), the negative flow-on effects of any disruption to the primary good export sector will have seriously damaging consequences for the entire NZ economy.

That is why the Foreign Minister spoke of diversifying NZ’s exports away from any single market. The only difference from previous governments is that the lip service paid to the “eggs in several baskets” trade mantra has now taken on urgency in light of the realities exposed by the pandemic within the larger geopolitical context.

Nothing that the Labour government has done since it assumed office has either increased subservience to China or distanced NZ from its “traditional” partners. In fact, the first Ardern government had an overtly pro-Western (and US) slant when coalition partners Winston Peters and Ron Mark of NZ First were Foreign Affairs and Defence ministers, respectively. Now that Labour governs alone and NZ First are out of parliament, it has reemphasised its Pacific small state multilateralist approach to international affairs, but without altering its specific approach to Great Power (US-PRC) competition.

The situation addressed by Mahuta’s speech is therefore as follows. NZ has not abandoned its security allies just because it refuses to accept the Trumpian premise that the 5 Eyes be used as a diplomatic blunt instrument rather than a discreet intelligence network (especially on the issue of human rights); and it is heavily dependent on China for its economic well-being, so needs to move away from that position of vulnerability by increasingly diversifying its trade partners as well as the nature of exports originating in Aotearoa. The issue is how to maintain present and future foreign policy independence given these factors.

With those facts in mind, the Taniwha and Dragon speech was neither an abandonment of allies or a genuflection to the Chinese. It was a diplomatic re-equilibration phrased in metaphorical and practical terms.

Nanaia Mahuta, NZ’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, gave a speech that was notable for two things. On the one hand she spoke of diversifying NZ’s trade relations away from the domination of one market (read: the PRC). On the other hand she expressed a desire to return the 5 Eyes signals intelligence collection and sharing network to its original charter rather than allow it to be used a diplomatic foil by the other partners in the network (which was brought about by a couple of critical 5 Eyes statements on events in the PRC). To be clear: the 5 Eyes is an intelligence network, not a diplomatic coalition or military-security alliance, so using it for diplomatic signalling and posturing is folly. Not only is NZ the most vulnerable of the 5 Eyes partners to Chinese retaliation, but the move to use 5 Eyes as a diplomatic tool was an initiative that came from a Trump administration that was uninterested in the complexities of the relations US partners maintained with China and very much interested in pressing the partners to bend a knee to Trump’s desire to squeeze China on all fronts.

In other words, it was an absurd and unnecessary initiative that complicated things for the spy agencies involved and undermined the positions of the diplomats who normally would conduct such types of public diplomacy. As it turns out, Winston Peters and Ron Mark of NZ First were the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defence at the time of the first US request to use the 5 Eyes to issue joint condemnatory statements about Chinese behaviour in Hong Kong and vis a vis the Uyghers in Xinjiang Province. They wanted to keep in the US good graces and so acceded to the request, something that Mahuta agreed to with regards to a second statement very early on in her tenure as Foreign Minister. But after very blunt warnings from the Chinese about NZ’s meddling in its internal affairs, it is clear that a more calibrated, balanced approach was required. Her speech delivered on that score.

It did so because it counterpoised the need to return to the original 5 Eyes charter with a declaration of intent with regard to diversifying trade away from the PRC. There is irony in the move because it was under the 5th Labour government where NZ’s trade dependence on the PRC was deepened and consolidated via the signing of a bilateral Free Trade Agreement (in 2008). Thus, while former PM Helen Clark may have played a role in getting NZ to push to restore the 5 Eyes charter due to her statement in September 2020 that NZ was losing its independence within it, she also was being rebuked for ignoring the concerns of many that the asymmetric nature of the NZ-PRC FTA would come back to haunt NZ on both the economic and diplomatic fronts.

The speech went on to reaffirms NZ’s foreign policy independence and its commitment to multilateralism, democratic values and a South Pacific orientation. Coming just before a visit by the Australian foreign minister, it served as a framing device for bilateral discussions. More generally, it helped re-frame how NZ proposes to approach the world over the next few years. The key issue will be how it implements, much less achieves, what is essentially a new balance in the conduct of NZ foreign affairs.

In any case, here is the podcast with Selwyn Manning on the subject.

Selwyn Manning and I dedicated this week’s video podcast to the potential emergence of rival blocs within the transitional process involved in the move from a unipolar to a multipolar international system currently underway. However one characterises the phenomenon–autocracies versus democracies, East versus West, colonial versus post-colonial–the global order is increasingly bifurcated and dichotomous. Although a move to multipolarity is seemingly beneficial because it is theoretically more stable over the long term (at least when compared to bi- and unipolar systems), the consequences of the orchestrated shift into adversarial alliance blocs may be detrimental to peace and stability over the short term. You can catch the show here.

Media Link: Nuclear strategy, then and now.

datePosted on 15:46, September 17th, 2020 by Pablo

Although I had the fortune of being a graduate student of some of the foremost US nuclear strategists of the day (1970s) and later rubbed shoulders with Air Force and Naval officers who were entrusted with parts of the US nuclear arsenal, I seldom get to write or speak about the subject nowadays. However, in this week’s “A View from Afar” podcast with Selwyn Manning, we discuss the evolution of nuclear strategy and the impact of technology on logics of deterrence. It is all-too-brief but I think we got to the gist of the matter.

You can find the podcast here.

The Chinese List.

datePosted on 10:41, September 17th, 2020 by Pablo


News that Zhenhua Data, an arm of China Zhenhua Electronics Group, a subsidiary of the military-connected China Electronic Information Industry Group (CETC), maintains a list of 800 New Zealanders on a “Overseas Key Information Database” that contains personal information on more than 2.4 million foreign individuals, has caused some consternation in Kiwi political circles. The list of New Zealanders includes diplomats, politicians, community leaders, senior civil servants, defense and military officials, criminals, corporate figures, judges, B-list celebrities and Max Key. Complete with photos, information on these people is gleaned from public sources, particularly social media accounts, in what is one type of open-source intelligence gathering. Involving twenty “collection sites” around the world (including the US, UK and Australia) the larger global canvass is a broad first cut that extends to family members of prominent figures, upon which subsequent analysis can be conducted in order to whittle down to particular persons of interest in search of vulnerabilities, pressure points, sources of leverage, influence or opportunity across a range of endeavour.

However, there is a context to these efforts because Zhenhua Data is not the first company to compile records on “high value” foreign individuals nor is the People’s Republic of China the first or only State to (directly or indirectly) engage in this type of data collection.

Less than a decade ago, Edward Snowden revealed that US intelligence agencies and their Five Eyes counterparts shared information stored in a vast digital data bank obtained by bulk collection of personal data from US and foreign individuals and groups. Information for actionable intelligence “nuggets” was extracted via data-mining using computer algorithms and, increasingly, Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies. Although the bulk collection program was later found to be illegal under US law, the practice of data-mining has continued in private and public sectors around the globe. Anyone who uses social media has their personal information stored and analysed by the providers of such platforms, who then sell that data to other firms. For profit-oriented actors, the objective is to tailor product advertising based on consumer preferences and characteristics. For governments the objectives can be security-related or oriented towards more effective public good provision, such as for public health campaigns. The overall intent is to get an actionable read on the subjects of scrutiny.

Added to this is the fact that intelligence agencies have long used network analysis as an intelligence tool, most recently in the fight against violent extremism. The larger purpose of network analysis is to connect dots on a large scale by establishing overt and covert linkages between disparate entities, both individual and collective. There are variations to network analyses, including what are known as “mosaic” and “spiderweb” tracing processes. Uncovering linkages helps futures forecasting because it can identify patterns of connection and behaviour, including funding sources, favours owed, personal ties, foibles and affectations. More recently, bulk collection, data-mining and network analysis have been wedded to facial recognition technologies that provide real-time physical imagery to records compilation efforts. This includes images of people in groups or in public spaces, which can be frame-by-frame analysed in order to help discern hidden or covert interactions between members of suspected networks as well as specific individuals.

None of this is particularly new or particular to the PRC. In fact, it is a routine task for intelligence agencies that is used as a first cut for more targeted scrutiny. Along with the Five Eyes partners, Israel and Russia have been pioneers in this field.

When taken together, open source data-mining coupled with social network analysis using a combination of advanced computer technologies creates a chaff/wheat separation process that allows further specific targeting of individuals for purposes important to the State doing the undertaking. In the case of Zhenhua Data, the list of targets includes those designated as “politically exposed persons” and “special interest persons.” Beyond general knowledge of “high value” individuals, the presumable objective of the exercise is to identify and locate hidden connections and personal/group vulnerabilities that can be leveraged for the benefit of the Chinese State. The application of specific designators provides an early filter in the process, from which more focused signals and human intelligence efforts can be subsequently directed.

Zhenhua Data is not alone in using its private business status as a front for or complement to State intelligence-gathering operations. The US firm Palantir, co-founded by New Zealand citizen Peter Thiel with seed money provided by the CIA venture capital arm In-Q-Tel, specialises in big data analysis, including software-based analytic synergies involving data mining, AI and facial recognition technologies. Palantir has an office near Pipitea House, Headquarters of the GCSB and SIS, and its local clients exclusively reside within the New Zealand Intelligence Community (NZIC).

The question, therefore, is whether Zhenhua Data is doing anything different or more insidious than what Palantir does on a regular basis? The answer lies in ideology, geopolitics, values and alliances. In New Zealand Palantir works for the Five Eyes network and local intelligence and security agencies. Its relationship with the spies is hand-in-glove, so it has a Western code of business conduct when dealing with confidential and private information and operates within the legal frameworks governing intelligence-gathering activities in Western democracies. Its orientation is Western-centric, meaning that its geopolitical outlook is driven by the strategic concerns and threat assessments of Western government clients. Although it may have a relationship with the New Zealand Police, it presumably is not involved in bulk-scale intelligence-gathering in New Zealand and what foreign data-mining and network analysis it does should serve the purposes of the New Zealand government. But the fact that Palantir and Five Eyes as a whole engage in mass data-mining and social network analysis is incontrovertible.

Zhenhua Data, in contrast, is believed to be a military-directed technology front. It is seen by Western intelligence agencies as an integral component of Chinese “sharp power” projection whereby so-called “influence operations” are directed at the elites and broader society in targeted countries with the purpose of bending their political, economic and social systems in ways favorable to Chinese interests. For the New Zealand security community, which as part of Western-oriented security networks has identified the PRC as a non-friendly actor in Defense White Papers and Intelligence Annual Reports, Zhenhua Data is not a benign entity and its intent is not good. Numerous academic and political commentators concur with this assessment.

The issue seems to boil down to whether data-collection activities are seen as good or bad depending on who does it, under what circumstances, and where one’s loyalties lie.

In other words, how one sees Zhenhua Data’s data-gathering efforts depends on how one feels about the PRC, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), authoritarian rule and China’s move towards achieving Great Power status in world affairs. If one views authoritarians, the PRC, CCP or Chinese foreign policy with suspicion, then the view will be negative. If one perceives them with favour, then the perspective will be positive. Conversely, if one views the activities of the Five Eyes network and partners like Palantir with suspicion, then Zhenhua Data’s list is of little consequence other than as a non-Western equivalent to Palantir and an indicator of possible things to come.

Ultimately that is a matter of values projected onto real world practices. Stripped of the value assessment, Zhenhua Data is doing what it has to do in order for the PRC to achieve its long-term strategic goals. 

Sort of like Palantir, Chinese style.

This essay was originally published in The Spinoff, September 17, 2020.

Media Link: “A View from Afar” podcast, episode 7.

datePosted on 13:19, September 6th, 2020 by Pablo

In the most recent broadcast Selwyn Manning and I talk about the turn (back) towards hard power competition in international affairs. You can find it here.

I have been fortunate enough to receive regular reports from the 42 Group, a defence and security-focused collection of youngish people whose purpose is to provide independent strategic analysis to policy makers and the NZ public. Their work is very good.

I asked the person who sends me their reports if it was Ok to republish the latest report here. He agreed, so here it is.

While we were locked down…

datePosted on 12:25, May 29th, 2020 by Pablo

…a lot of things unrelated to the pandemic were happening. Relatively little attention was given to some major events on the global stage, so I thought I would do a quick recap of some of the high (or low) -lights, starting with something familiar. The common theme throughout is human error and misadventure.

Last Friday Simon Bridges and Paula Bennet were ousted as Leader and Deputy Leader of the Opposition in NZ. They were replaced by Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye in what was supposed to be a replace-and-refresh exercise. Instead, the National Party coup has the makings of a debacle, with neither Muller or Kaye appearing to have a policy program in place or a fair idea of the optics as well as substance of their cabinet choices. It increasingly looks like they were ill-prepared to assume the Leadership before the coup and now are saddled with a restive caucus confronting the possibility of a dismal election outcome in a few months. In fact, there is a hint that they may have been set up to fail by more adroit political operators within the party looking to a post-election future marshalled along populist rather than liberal lines.

I say party “coup” rather than leadership “spill” or “roll” because the forced ouster of a political incumbent does not always have to be at gunpoint. It can even be constitutional, in the form of impeachment under false pretences. All that is required is a change of the guard under duress, and that is what happened here.

What is noteworthy is that, in its lack of planning and lack of success in getting much support or traction, the National Party coup shares features with a more conventional type of coup attempt in Venezuela. In the latter case, US ex-military veterans joined with Venezuelan ex-military figures in an effort in early May to oust the Bolivarian regime led by Nicolas Maduro. They were bankrolled by Venezuelan exiles in South Florida, where the US mercenaries had ties to a private security firm that has done work for the Trump administration. They were encouraged by Venezuelan opposition forces led by US-backed Juan Guaido, who signed a contract, later reneged on, with the US private security company, which then hired the mercenaries for a total of USD$350 million to conduct the operation (neither that money, or a down payment of a couple of million dollars, was ever paid). The total number of insurgents supposedly numbered around 300, and they trained and staged in Colombia. The total number of insurgents who launched the assault, including two Americans, totalled about 30.

It is not known if US special envoy for Venezuela, Elliot Abrams of Iran-Contra fame, was involved but his track record suggests the possibility. The US State department denies any knowledge or complicity in the plot. What is known is that Venezuelan and Cuban intelligence had infiltrated the operation very early on its planning (mid 2019), and when the two Americans and a couple dozen Venezuelans attempted to launch a landing from two open air wooden fishing vessels on a beach east of Caracas in what was supposed to be part of a two-pronged assault that included an attack on the port city of Maracaibo (the main oil export port), they were intercepted, fired upon and killed or captured. The Americans survived. They are veterans of the US Army’s 10th special forces group, whose theater of operations is Central Europe. Unlike the USASF 7th Group, which is responsible for Latin America, the US mercenaries spoke no Spanish and had no prior first-hand contacts in the region.

The lack of training and equipment displayed by the invaders was apparent, as one of the boats lost power as it attempted to flee Venezuelan gunships and the arsenal they brought to the fight included nothing heavier than light machine guns and some old RPGs (and at least one air soft gun!). The compendium of errors involved in the plot will stand as a monument to human ineptitude and folly.

The failure of the attack, labeled as “Bay of Pigs 2.0” by pundits, was a propaganda coup for the Maduro regime and an embarrassment for the US, which still has not investigated the Venezuelan exile’s role or the US security firm’s involvement in the operation, both of which are in violation of federal law. The larger point is that like the National Party coup, it was ill-conceived, hastily planned and poorly supported, with consequences that will likely be the reverse of what was hoped for.

In another part of the world, again in early May, an Iranian frigate, the Jamaran, accidentally struck the support ship Konarak with a Noor anti-ship cruise missile during an exercise in the Gulf of Oman. The blast killed 19 sailors and injured 15 others, obliterating the superstructure of the ship. The Noor is an Iranian version of the Chinese C-802 radar-guided anti-ship missile, flying at subsonic speeds at wave height up to a range fo 74 miles with a 363 point (165 kilos ) warhead. The Iranian Navy reported that the Konarak, which had towed a target barge into place but had not gained sufficient distance from it when the missile was fired, was hit accidentally when the Noor nose cone radar locked onto it rather than the target.

This follows the accidental shoot-down of a Ukrainian commercial airliner departing Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport in January. Mistaking it for an incoming US cruise missile in the wake of the drone strike on Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) Commander Quasem Soleimani in Baghdad and a retaliatory Iranian attack on a joint Iraq/US bases in Iraq shortly thereafter, the Ukrainian plane was downed by an SA-15 or Tor-M1 surface to air missile from a battery manned by a Revolutionary Guard crew who thought that it was an incoming US cruise missile.

These human error-caused accidents follow a long string of incidents involving US and Iranian forces since Donald Trump assumed the US presidency and withdrew from the Iranian nuclear control agreement signed with UN permanent security council members and Germany (the P5+1 agreement). These include several ship attacks and seizures by the IRGC, the downing of a US surveillance drone over Iranian airspace, as well as missile attacks on Saudi oil facilities launched from Yemen and/or Iraq but which are widely believed to be the work of the Iranians.

The concern is that, having made some very public mistakes that cost lives, the IRGC will seek to recover its reputation with more military successes, especially because the entire regime is under pressure due to its poor handling of the CV-19 crisis. This type of brinkmanship sets the stage for the sort of miscalculation and errors that can lead to war.

Now the Iranians are sending five tanker ships full of fuel to Venezuela. The first of the ships has entered Venezuelan territorial waters escorted by Venezuelan naval ships while being watched by US warships and Coast Guard. The irony of a country with the worlds largest oil reserves having to receive shipments of refined crude due to the collapse of its indigenous refining facilities appears to be lost on the Boliviarians, who have characterised the shipments as an example fo anti-imperialist solidarity. They and Iran have warned that any attempt to stop the convoy in order to enforce US sanctions against both countries would be seen as an act of war.

Not that such a warning will necessarily bother the Trump administration, which has an itchy trigger figure when it comes to this particular anti-imperialist couple. That is particularly so because in late March a Venezuelan littoral patrol boat, the ANBV Naiguata (CG-23) , sunk after it rammed a ice-strengthened expedition vessel, the Portuguese-flagged RCGS Resolute. The captain of the Naiguata, purportedly a reservist whose day the job was as a tug skipper, accused the Resolute of encroaching in Venezuelan territorial waters with bad intent and ordered it to the nearest Venezuelan port. When the Resolute, which was on its way to Curacao and was reportedly idling in international waters while conducting engine repairs, failed to obey his commands, the Naiguata fired warning shots then rammed the Resolute from an angle that suggested the Venezuelan ship was trying to alter the Resolute’s direction towards the Venezuelan port. For its troubles the Naiguata began to take on water and had to be abandoned to the sea a few hours later, while the Resolute suffered minor damages.

Closer to home, the PRC has engaged in a series of provocations and show of force displays in the South China Sea, including seizing Indonesian fishing boats and intimidating Vietnamese survey vessels in Vietnamese waters. In a month it is scheduled to deploy its two aircraft carriers together for the first time, passing the Pratas Islands and Taiwan and their way to exercises in the Philippine Sea. Although the deployment is more symbolic than substrative given that the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has limited experience with blue water carrier operations and will take long time before it can sustain combat operational tempos that could challenge the US, it does serve as a reminder of what is to come in a maritime region that is increasingly contested space between the PRC, its southern neighbours bordering on the South China Sea, the US and US allies such as the UK and Australia.

This has not gone unnoticed. After its forced port stay in Guam due to the CV-19 spread within it (eventually more than a 1000 sailors contracted the disease), the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN- 71) aircraft carrier has returned to sea in support of 5th and 7th Fleet operations that include two other carriers and their respective battle groups. At last report it was headed for the Philippines Sea. But the US Navy has its own problems, including the Fat Leonard corruption scandal that engulfed 30 flag ranked officers and two at-sea collisions in 2017 between guided missile destroyers (the USS John S. McCain and USS Fitzgerald) with merchant ships that cost US service personnel lives and which were found to be the fault of the US commanders of the ships in question. Added to the debacle surrounding the Roosevelt’s port call in Guam, it is clear that the US Navy has issues that transcend the ability of opponents to challenge it in disputed territories.

What these military moments reminds us is that the possibility of miscalculation and human error leading to lethal conflict is very real.

Then there is political misadventure, of a grander type than the National Party’s circular firing squad. Authoritarian minded leaders around the world have attempted to use the CV-19 pandemic as an excuse to consolidate their powers and extend their rule. Some have done so after initially denying that the pandemic was real, unusual or grave. Others simply sized the opportunity provided to them by the need to enact emergency measures to combat the spread of the disease, particularly those that restrict freedoms of assembly and movement (where they existed). This was a topic of discussion amongst right-wingers in NZ, but in other parts the world the authoritarian temptation, as it is called in the dedicated literature, was real rather than imagined.

But the move to consolidate political power runs the risk of overreach, not just with regard to a pandemic that respects no borders, partisan lines or demographic divisions, but with regard to what is achievable over the long term. Consider the recent draft changes to the Chinese constitution that effectively end the “one state, two systems” approach to Hong Kong by placing the former colony under direct Chinese control when it comes to security powers–which are very broadly defined. If the changes are passed into law in September, it ends Hong Kong’s autonomy 27 years before the expiration of the devolution agreement signed between the PRC and UK in 1997 and pushes the confrontation between pro-democracy supporters and the CCP leadership to a head, marginalising the Hong Kong government in the process.

The trouble is that it is unlikely that the pro-democracy movement will fade away quietly or disappear under duress. Moreover, if the US withdraws Hong Kong’s special trade status and other nations downscale their ties to the special administrative territory, its value as a cash cow for the Chinese economy will be undermined. To be sure, Hong Kong is not as important economically to the PRC as it was at the moment of devolution, but if it loses its status and position as a major financial and trade hub its ill have serious negative ripple effects across the mainland.

The same is possible with Chinese threats against Taiwan. The PRC is still able to continue Taiwanese marginalisation in international fora, including in the World Health Organisation even though Taiwan’s approach to CV-19 is widely considered to be a success whereas the PRC’s approach is increasingly being questioned in terms of its transparency, efficiency and accuracy of reporting. That, along with the move to militarily intimidate Taiwan, has provoked a backlash from the US and other large powers as well as the strengthening of Hong-Kong-Taiwan solidarity ties. In effect, a hard move against either country could prove far more costly than the PRC can currently afford, whether or not it provokes an armed conflict.

The move to assert PRC control over the two states is due more to President Xi’s desire to firm up his control of the CPP than it is to geopolitical necessity. Xi has already orchestrated a constitutional re-engineering that ensures his permanence in power until death, but he clearly has been unnerved by the virus and the CCPs inability to respond quickly and decisively to it. Surrounded by underlings and sycophants, he appears to be resorting to the tried and true authoritarian tactic of staging a foreign diversion in order to whip up nationalist sentiment, something that he can use to portray himself as a national saviour while smoking out any rumblings of discontent within the broader ranks of the CCP.

A twist to the foreign adventurism scenario is Vladimir Putin’s approach to Syria and Libya. Perhaps content with the military successes achieved in Syria and/or unwilling to spend billions of rubles re-building Assad’s failed state, he has now re-positioned disguised Russian fighter aircraft in Libya (at al-Jufra air base south of Sirte) in support of the renegade warlord Kalifa Haftar, whose Libyan National Army (LNA) forces are challenging the UN-backed government (Government of National Accord or GNA) located in Tripoli. Speculation has it that Russia wants to gain a strategic foothold in the Southern Mediterranean that has the potential for both North and South power projection, as well as providing a counter to strong Turkish military support for the GNA. Haftar is a staunch anti-Islamicist whereas the GNA is backed by the Saudis, UAE and other Sunni potentates, so there is some support for the move amongst neighbouring countries and those further afield (such as Iran).

The problem for Putin is that CV-19 is raging in his country and the economic downturn since it began to spread has made the fossils fuel exports upon which Russia’s economy depends dry up to the point of standstill. That makes support for Russian military operations in the Middle East unsustainable under current and near-term conditions. That could pose risks to Putin himself if Russia finds itself bogged down and suffering losses in two separate Arab conflicts (and it should be noted that Russian mercenaries under the banner of the Wagner Group, who have already suffered embarrassing defeats in Syria, have now been forced to retreat from Western Libya after suffering defeats at the hands of the GNA military). That would be a serious blow to Putin’s credibility, which has already suffered because of his lackadaisical response to the pandemic. That in turn could encourage challenges to his authority, to include within a military that may see itself to be over-extended and underfunded in times like these.

The list of opportunistic power grabs and other excesses under the cover of the pandemic is long. President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, in power since 1994, denies that CV-19 is a problem, refused until very recently to enact any prophylactic measures and has scheduled another rigged election for August even as the death toll mounts. Similarly, president Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil is trying to push through policies while public attention is diverted towards the growing public health crisis (25,000+ deaths and counting) caused by CV-19 and his denial that it is anything other than a common flu. This was made abundantly clear when a leaked video tape of a Brazilian cabinet meeting in April shows Bolsonaro railing about how he will thwart federal prosecutors investigating his family finances and his Minister of Environment suggesting that the time was ripe to open up the Amazon to mass scale logging and mining while attention was focused on the pandemic.

The issue here is not their pandemic denialism but their opportunistic use of the moment to pursue self-serving objectives while public attention is diverted elsewhere. the trouble for both Lukashenko and Bolsonaro is that their actions have precipitated unprecedented backlashes from a wide spectrum of their respective societies, transcending partisan divides and class loyalties.

There are plenty of other instances of errors of judgement and miscalculation to enumerate, but this will have to suffice for now. The thrust of this ramble is to note a few items that were largely overlooked in NZ media while the pandemic absorbed its attention; and to again point out how human error, miscalculation, misadventure and folly undertaken under the cloak of the pandemic can not only lead to unhappy results, but can produce results that are the opposite of or contrary to the intentions of the principals involved.

A coward’s ploy.

datePosted on 11:52, November 17th, 2019 by Pablo

Some readers may remember that I mentioned last year that I was applying for NZ citizenship. I filled out the paperwork and had my original citizenship interview in February. Everything went well until they discovered that, because I had spent five months in the US in 2017, I had not been in continuous NZ residency for the full amount of time required before the interview took place (one has to spend 240 days in NZ in a 12 month period or 1,350 days across the five years preceding the application, so I was overseas for one month over the 4 month yearly limit). I was therefore ineligible for citizenship at that time.

That was not much of a problem, as everything else looked good to go and I was advised to re-apply at the end of August once I had accumulated the required number of continuous days in residence. That I did, and had another interview in early October, paid my fee, and settled into wait the 3-4 months before getting word as to whether my application had been approved. As it turns out, approval can only be granted by the Minister responsible for citizenship matters upon the recommendation of her staff, so my decision will fall to Tracey Martin of NZ First.

About a week after I applied I was contacted by a Senior Investigator from the Department Internal Affairs. He told me that in early December last year they had received an anonymous email making serious allegations against me and requesting that I be denied citizenship. Because of that, he was duty bound to request a meeting so that I could respond to the allegations in person.

We held that meeting last week. I was relieved to know that the complaint was not of a personal nature. Instead, it concerned by public writing and commentary, including, presumably, on this blog.

The complainant alleges that I am not loyal to New Zealand; that I am not loyal to the Queen and would not be subject to her rule; that my published opinions are contrary to NZ national interests; that I have a strong bias in favour of US interests; that I am a scaremonger; that I am a foreign “imbedded (sic) operative;” and that I am seeking to influence the internal affairs of NZ by foreign interests. The person then goes on to request that my application be rejected on those grounds.

Needless to say I had plenty to comment on. I had to laugh at the references to the Queen since no native-born Kiwi is asked to swear loyalty to her and most of my native-born friends are a wee bit skeptical about royalty in any event. I have heard the stuff about being a covert operative before (CIA, Mossad, take your pick), and as for trying to influence things in NZ I noted that I happily plead guilty to the charge of trying to participate in public debates on matters that fall within my range of interest and expertise given my professional training and background. I noted that the complainant appeared to have a poor understanding of liberal democracy and the freedoms inherent in it.

One thing that interested the investigator was how this person knew that I was going to apply for citizenship. Again, the complaint was made in the first week of December 2018. I could only think of two possible situations where I mentioned my intentions around that time. One was in a professional forum under Chatham House rules. The other was on this blog. So I went into the blog archives and low and behold, in late November/early December 2018 I wrote several posts about the PRC and the Anne-Marie Brady affair (the break-ins of her office and home and the weak Police response to them after her paper about Chinese influence in NZ politics was published). Those posts attracted the attention of a pro-PRC troll who went by the name of Mark and who gave all the appearance of being a Chinese New Zealander. Some of you may remember him, but you will not find him in the comments because I eventually blacklisted him (after labelling him “skid mark”) for repeatingly violating the terms governing comments on KP.

Mark did not solely focus his attention here. Around the same time he wrote similar comments on YourNZ, Bowalley Road, Croaking Cassandra and No Minister (Tom Hunter may recall him). His argument and tone was pretty much the same on all platforms.

I decided to look into Mark just a wee bit. It turns out that last December he created a twitter account under the name Mark Zhang (MarkZha88709847). He posted 16 tweets on December 8, then vanished. I cross checked the language in the complaint with the comments he made here and in other forums as well as the tweets and I am pretty sure that he is the complainant.

There is much irony in this. Here is a guy who is a blatant pro-PRC stooge who questions my loyalty to NZ and sees my supposed pro-US bias as grounds for disqualification. This Einstein does not seem to comprehend that even anonymous emails using VPN can be traced back to their source and that making frivolous complaints that waste official time and resources could warrant further scrutiny (the investigator had to fly from Wellington to Auckland to interview me).

In any event, the interview with the investigator seemed to go well. I was given a copy of the allegations and asked to review and sign the written transcript of my responses, which I did. I am satisfied that there is nothing that I have done in my 22 years living in NZ that warrants my being denied citizenship, but that is for Tracey Martin to decide.

With luck, come late summer or early fall I will be lining up in a citizenship ceremony to pledge my loyalty to the Queen of New Zealand (which, as it turns out, is apparently the wording of the loyalty oath).

I can do that.

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