April 25, 2020

How the United States Should Deal With China in Pakistan


Summary:  The Trump administration holds a decidedly critical view of China’s infrastructure initiatives in Pakistan. Although there is much to criticize in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the administration’s fixation on commercial and economic issues threatens to distract U.S. policymakers from deeper concerns.

INTRODUCTION

By the end of 2019, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), China’s high-profile development initiative in Pakistan, had shifted to a new phase. Whereas the first CPEC projects were mainly devoted to building new physical infrastructure, like power plants and highways, the next iteration of CPEC will tackle a wider array of projects intended to spur economic development and job creation.

Changes in CPEC were motivated by Pakistan’s political and institutional realities as well as by the broader evolution of China’s globe-spanning Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), of which CPEC has always been a prominent part. Yet the early stages of CPEC were themselves slowed or stymied by Pakistan’s own weak institutions and domestic political cleavages. The next phase is almost certain to yield similar if not greater frustrations.

In the midst of CPEC’s transition, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has unveiled a decidedly more critical view of China’s infrastructure initiatives in Pakistan, one aligned with Washington’s tougher posture in the global competition with China. Although there is much to criticize in CPEC, the administration’s current fixation on commercial and economic issues threatens to distract U.S. policymakers from deeper concerns, including how Chinese political influence contributes to illiberal governance and undermines personal freedoms in Pakistan. Washington needs to keep one eye on the prize of regional stability, especially in the context of deepening hostility between India and Pakistan, and the other eye on the longer-term geopolitical challenges posed by China’s increased involvement throughout the region.

U.S. policymakers should also remember that even when China’s overseas policies are dangerously flawed, foreign leaders and citizens will respond better to a United States that does less finger-wagging and more concrete problem-solving. For Pakistan as for so many other states around the world, the U.S.-China global competition is in itself of little practical concern when compared to other pressing needs, such as economic development, public health, and security. Until U.S. officials hone their messages and policies to better appeal to the interests of overseas audiences, they are likely to be greeted with lackluster, even dismissive, responses.

PLAYING CPEC POLITICS

Amid much fanfare, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Islamabad in April 2015 to announce the launch of CPEC. Pakistan’s leaders characterized the initiative as nothing less than a “fate changer,” a transformative development package that would simultaneously deliver economic growth, political stability, and security to Pakistan. By extension, CPEC would also help address China’s concerns about the threat of Islamist ideology along its western border. Even if China’s official statements were more circumspect about Beijing’s specific funding plans, promises of $40 billion–$60 billion or more in Chinese investment, with an emphasis on Pakistan’s troubled energy sector, stole the headlines in Pakistan.

Although CPEC is unlikely to live up to these early claims, the achievements of the past five years should not be dismissed. Pakistan received at least $19 billion in new infrastructure, including Chinese-built power plants that have reduced, if not eliminated, the country’s once debilitating rolling blackouts. Beijing claims that its projects have created jobs for an estimated 75,000 Pakistani workers, and other China-backed infrastructure improvements are literally set in concrete, such as roads, rails, and the new deep-sea port of Gwadar in Balochistan Province. These are significant accomplishments for Pakistan, which has been challenged by a difficult business environment, contentious politics, and long-standing domestic and regional security threats.

Daniel Markey
Daniel Markey is the author of China’s Western Horizon: Beijing and the New Geopolitics of Eurasia (Oxford University Press, 2020). He is also a senior research professor in international relations and the academic director of the Master of Arts in Global Policy program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

For its part, the administration of former U.S. president Barack Obama initially voiced a cautious welcome to Chinese infrastructure investments in Pakistan as a means to advance the shared aim of developing Pakistan’s economy and, over time, delivering economic opportunities to its people that, the argument went, would undercut the appeal of radical ideologies. Instead of opposing CPEC, U.S. officials even sought ways to harmonize initiativesfrom the United States Agency for International Development in Pakistan with new Chinese-sponsored ones.

Of late, however, the Trump administration has adopted a very different stance on CPEC. In November 2019, the most senior official in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, Ambassador Alice Wells, took the stage at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC, and delivered a forceful critique of CPEC. Applying the Trump administration’s general assessment of the BRI to Pakistan, Wells cited several U.S. concerns about CPEC: its relatively high costs, the long-term effects of its debt burden on Pakistan’s economy, the lack of transparency in its bidding processes that has fueled allegations of corruption, and the paucity of new jobs it has created for Pakistani workers.

Rather than seeking to harmonize U.S. and Chinese development efforts, the Trump team now seems intent on highlighting their differences in a bid to raise Pakistani awareness and stir skepticism about China’s aid offerings. In the ambassador’s words, “After four years of CPEC, people in Pakistan are beginning to ask tough questions about what kind of deals their prior government struck with Communist China and what Pakistan really gains.”

Washington’s policy shift as articulated in the 2017 National Security Strategy and the 2018 National Defense Strategy documents reflects a toughened line on great power competition, especially with regard to China. Trump administration officials have expressed similar views in other instances as well. For example, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used his February 2020 trip to Kazakhstan to warn local audiences about the dangers posed by business deals with China.

Not surprisingly, Chinese and Pakistani officials responded harshly to the tougher U.S. line. Beijing was especially keen to refute U.S. officials’ arguments that China had ensnared Pakistan in debt traps. Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan Yao Jingpublicly complained that Wells made use of inaccurate information and propaganda and went on to claim that China, unlike the U.S.-backed International Monetary Fund, would never force Pakistan to repay loans on a strict timeline if doing so would harm Pakistan’s interests. From Beijing, Deputy Director of the Foreign Ministry Information Department and Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang also rejected U.S. “smears,” observing that half of Pakistan’s outstanding debts are from multilateral financial institutions and that “more than 80 percent of CPEC projects are funded by direct investment or grants from China.”

Pakistan’s response took a similar tone. Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Aisha Farooqui also pushed back on U.S. claims, highlighting the CPEC projects that had already been built and the “enormous economic benefits for the people of Pakistan.” The Senate of Pakistan passed a resolution declaring the U.S. statement “uncalled for, unwarranted and unprecedented” and claiming Washington was “promoting fiction and presenting a biased perspective.”

Prominent political backers of Pakistan’s close ties with China, like Senator Mushahid Hussain, explained that “CPEC is central to Pakistan’s future, and it’s a pivot of our strategic relationship with China and for which Pakistan has benefited already.” Even Shehbaz Sharif, the opposition leader in the National Assembly and brother of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, fell in line. In a tweet, he declared, “I believe President Xi’s Belt & Road Initiative, based on the idea of win-win partnerships, shows the way forward & is an incredible model of interstate relations. Pakistanis will remain grateful to their Iron Brother for not only CPEC but also being an ally & all-weather friend!”

These responses are critically important for what they reveal about the politics of CPEC. Neither Beijing nor Islamabad is eager to air any frustrations about the other in public, much less to accept Washington’s criticism of initiatives that enjoy the personal backing of both Xi and Pakistani Chief of Army Staff Qamar Javed Bajwa. Moreover, each of the three successive Pakistani political parties that has held power since the end of Pervez Musharraf’s military rule in 2008 bought into CPEC and supports tighter relations with Beijing. Few prominent Pakistanis are willing or able to backtrack or disavow Beijing now.

SHIFTING MOODS IN PAKISTAN

That said, just underneath the Pakistani and Chinese desire to defend CPEC for political reasons lie specific grievances and concerns. These have shifted perspectives on both sides over the past five years. German Marshall Fund fellow Andrew Small goes so far as to argue that the period from 2015 to 2020 encapsulated both the rise and fall of CPEC.1 He explains that “the story of the last few years has been one of the two sides rediscovering their limitations” and anticipates that the future will return both countries to an earlier pattern of lower-profile ambition on the economic development front, even if “closed, secretive” cooperation on sensitive security matters continues.

Small is right to emphasize that both sides’ CPEC ambitions underwent dramatic downsizing. Neither Beijing nor Islamabad is discussing new Chinese initiatives or investments in Pakistan at a scale close to the magnitude touted in 2015. However, China-Pakistan relations are also unlikely to have come entirely full circle as the two sides will more than likely build on the CPEC foundation. Their relationship has matured in ways that cannot be undone.

In Pakistan, the most readily identifiable shift on CPEC came during the 2018 national elections, when Prime Minister Imran Khan’s party defeated the incumbent leadership. For years leading up to the national campaign, Khan played the outsider card and repeatedly criticized the government for cutting unfavorable and opaque deals with Beijing. He called for a greater commitment to job creation and social programs rather than heavy infrastructure projects. Khan largely muted his criticism soon after assuming office, however, in large part because Pakistan’s economy had fallen into crisis and his government required external bailouts to stay afloat. Lacking leverage with Beijing, Khan failed to renegotiate the CPEC deals struck by the previous government.

Khan was hardly alone as a disgruntled Pakistani critic of CPEC. As this author recently argued, the benefits of Chinese investments were unevenly distributed across Pakistani society, yielding predictable jealousies and frustrations.2 For some among Pakistan’s elite, from business tycoons to establishment politicians to military leaders, CPEC held the promise of business opportunities and new resources. For many others, including ethnic minorities like the Baloch, who have often found themselves marginalized from Pakistan’s political and economic decisionmaking, CPEC looked like another exploitative raw deal, unlikely to offer them economic development or new social welfare benefits commensurate with its costs, which were likely to include population displacement and environmental degradation. Lacking transparency about the terms of the Chinese deals, some Pakistani critics began to grumble about China as a new “East India Company,” bent on using its economic heft to exploit Pakistan in a new version of imperialism. In short, rather than alleviating Pakistan’s socioeconomic disparities or mitigating long-standing political grievances, CPEC threatened to exacerbate them. As a consequence, initial public euphoria over CPEC dimmed. Similarly, Pakistan’s generals gradually shifted gears from excessive optimism in 2015 to a more careful pragmatism, though they remain firmly committed to a close strategic partnership with China.

Driving Pakistan’s careful pragmatism has been a string of Chinese diplomatic moves demonstrating that China would not back Pakistan unconditionally. For instance, in September 2017, China joined India in signing a BRICS summit antiterror declaration that included specific mentions of Pakistan-based groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba. Beijing’s departure from a long-standing practice of shielding Pakistan from such criticism surprised Islamabad. Similarly unwelcome were Beijing’s February 2018 and 2020 votes to gray-list Pakistan on the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and its April 2019 capitulation to pressure in the United Nations for blacklisting Pakistani terrorist Masood Azhar. In each instance, Islamabad would have preferred Beijing to have more forcefully taken Pakistan’s side. Moreover, the April 2018 summit in Wuhan between Xi and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi put Pakistan’s leaders on notice that China had no immediate interest in seeing another flare-up in its own border tensions with India. That message surely disappointed Pakistan’s generals, who have for decades seen China-India tensions as a means to force India to prepare for a two-front war rather than focusing only on Pakistan.

Pakistani army concerns about China have been reinforced by an abiding determination to avoid overdependence on any outside partner if it might threaten Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty. Senior military officials in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi claim to have reached the conclusion that although Beijing is a valuable friend, it is not a treaty-bound ally that would step into a military conflict on Islamabad’s side. To the contrary, one senior Pakistani official noted how “every nation must be prepared to win its own battles,” and Pakistan is no exception.3

Beijing’s shifting stance on CPEC has been similarly understated yet significant. Some of its moves have been consistent with a global recalibration on the BRI that was discussed extensively during Beijing’s second Belt and Road Forum in April 2019. At that meeting, China sought to address widespread concerns among other BRI partners about how Chinese investments could impose excessive debt burdens, contribute to corruption, exacerbate environmental degradation, and advance China’s own strategic aims without necessarily contributing to local economic development.

Beijing has also recalibrated its involvement in CPEC as a consequence of Pakistan-specific frustrations. According to a 2017 long-term plan, both Beijing and Islamabad have long planned to shift investment from infrastructure to industrialization, but delays on CPEC projects and concerns about the financial viability of future projects raised or reinforced doubts among Chinese companies and policymakers. At a November 2019 meeting of the Pakistan-China Joint Cooperation Committee, the Chinese side decided not to announce any new financial commitments until previous projects were completed. With Pakistan’s GDP growth slowing from a high of 5.2 percent in 2018 to 3.3 percent in 2019 to an estimated 2.4 percent in 2020, the country’s already difficult business environment has begun to look even less attractive to Chinese investors.

Beijing has shifted from touting CPEC as a flagship for the BRI to describing it as a pilot project. This move reveals a trimming of expectations and ambitions driven mainly by Pakistan’s on-the-ground realities rather than China’s own strategy or plans. Such a reclassification offers the important lesson that Beijing’s overseas initiatives are heavily dependent on the politics and interests of its partners, even if they are all smaller and less powerful than China.

In short, CPEC is changing, both tangibly and rhetorically. Yet the CPEC game is far from over. CPEC cannot fail—that is a political and diplomatic impossibility. For Pakistan, China remains an important partner and lifeline. For China, CPEC remains both a closely watched test case for the export of China’s development model and a prestige project for Xi.

Reflecting the persistence of these close ties between China and Pakistan, leaders on both sides are quick to note that new CPEC initiatives are under way, informally dubbed “CPEC 2.0.” These efforts are expected to focus on “industrialization, agriculture, and socioeconomic development, with a particular emphasis on special economic zones” in order to better address the desire of Khan’s government to create more jobs for Pakistani workers. At the same time, China is ramping up its public diplomacy in Pakistan by starting an Urdu-language news service, undoubtedly as a means to pump out a steady stream of positive stories about CPEC and tamp down public frustrations and suspicions.

Despite these commitments, there are many reasons to anticipate that CPEC’s second phase could run into even more challenging headwinds than did the first. Building physical infrastructure was challenging, but with Chinese enterprises, engineers, and workers in the lead, it was not entirely at the mercy of Pakistan’s own governing institutions and human capital. By contrast, many of the core elements of CPEC 2.0 will touch politically sensitive and contentious issues, from land rights and education to economic and institutional reform. Even quite measured expectations could go unmet unless both sides take a patient, long-term perspective.

A SMARTER U.S. POLICY

U.S. policymakers are correct to sense that under CPEC’s surface lies a degree of frustration, uncertainty, and reduced ambition in both Islamabad and Beijing. Even if Trump administration officials only aim to give voice to concerns quietly shared by many Pakistanis, however, Washington’s approach has been too heavy-handed, tone deaf to the political and diplomatic exigencies facing Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders.

Moving forward, Washington’s policy should take two ground realities into account. First, Pakistani leaders—like those across Asia—have no particular desire to take a side in the brewing geopolitical competition between the United States and China. Self-interested more than ideological, they would prefer to extract benefits from both Beijing and Washington, even to play them off of each other. Moreover, many Pakistanis tend to question U.S. motivations, doubting Washington’s noble, liberal rhetoric about freedom and assuming those words mask ulterior aims, from safeguarding commercial and security interests to practicing outright imperialism. To be sure, Chinese rhetoric about noninterference in the sovereign affairs of other states strains credulity for many Pakistanis, but in the aftermath of a terribly fraught two decades of dealing with the United States, Washington’s claims of beneficence ring equally hollow.

Second, U.S. policymakers should keep in mind that CPEC is only one slice of the China-Pakistan relationship. Moreover, different infrastructure projects are likely to have different political consequences. Rather than framing the U.S. policy response as a narrow competition over the commercial and economic issues of “cost, debt, transparency, and jobs,” U.S. policymakers should train their focus on three broader aspects of China’s relationship with Pakistan.

The first and most immediate concern should be with respect to China’s impact on regional stability, especially between India and Pakistan, but also in the context of U.S. plans for a complete military withdrawal from Afghanistan. Second, now and for the foreseeable future, Washington should come up with more effective ways to compete with Beijing’s growing political influence, including its role in strengthening repressive, illiberal governance in Pakistan. Third, over the long run, the United States will want to weigh the geopolitical implications of the China-Pakistan defense partnership, including how China’s presence in Pakistan will better enable it to project military power into South Asia and the Middle East.

REGIONAL STABILITY

Over the past year, India and Pakistan have again reached the brink of war. Another India-Pakistan military crisis may be brewing this summer. Even as Trump administration officials perceive China as a global competitor, they would also be smart to appreciate Beijing’s role as a potential diplomatic partner when it comes to restraining India and Pakistan from war. If tensions in China-U.S. relations inhibit cooperation in the midst of a South Asian crisis, all sides will lose.

At present, U.S. and Chinese officials appear to hold different views on how to assign responsibility (and blame) for tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad, which could lead them to work at cross-purposes in the event of a crisis. Whereas Washington tends to see Indian military strikes against Pakistan as justified responses to terrorist outrages on Indian soil, Beijing emphasizes Pakistan’s strategic obligation to respond forcefully to aggression by its much larger neighbor. This mismatch is dangerous and warrants an intensive round of strategic stability talks between U.S. and Chinese diplomats, during which the two sides could at least share their assessments and discuss processes for better choreographing future diplomatic engagements with New Delhi and Islamabad.

In Afghanistan, the United States would also benefit from improved information-sharing with Beijing as U.S. diplomats navigate the tricky dual issues of an intra-Afghan peace process and a U.S. military drawdown. Washington has long perceived Beijing’s close ties with Islamabad as a point of potential leverage with Kabul, specifically as a means to encourage Pakistan to place greater pressure on its friends among the Taliban. Although China never delivered a breakthrough in support of U.S. war aims in Afghanistan, neither has it played a spoiler.

Both China and the United States fear the implications of an all-out Afghan civil war or even the return of a 1990s-style Taliban-led regime that would serve as a haven for al-Qaeda or other international terrorists. With these common interests in mind, Washington should open a regular dialogue with Beijing on Afghanistan, if only as a means to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings as the two powers deal separately with the Taliban, the government in Kabul, Pakistani officials, and representatives from other major regional players like Russia and Iran.

COMPETING FOR INFLUENCE

China’s political influence is growing in Pakistan as it is elsewhere in Asia. To the extent that the United States aims to remain politically relevant on the continent, it should above all avoid the traps of competing on Beijing’s terms or focusing on an explicit comparison between U.S. and Chinese development models as an “us or them” choice.

Rather than aping Chinese infrastructure investments, U.S. officials should instead think more broadly about what makes the United States an especially attractive partner. U.S.-style education, scientific research, and technological innovation tend to land at the top of that list. All are widely valued by Pakistanis because they offer a means to address real-life needs. The United States has wisely invested in Fulbright scholarships for thousands of Pakistanis to study in the United States, and the Pakistani government has reciprocated with millions of dollars in scholarships to support Pakistani PhD students in the United States. Unfortunately, Trump administration visa and immigration policies threaten to restrict Pakistanis from traveling and working in the United States, and the overall number of Pakistani students in American schools already pales (even in per capita terms) in comparison to those in India and China.4With due consideration of security issues, these policies should be reconsidered.

Similarly, Pakistanis have much to gain from trade with the United States. Washington has for decades failed to offer Pakistan’s textile industry favorable access to U.S. markets, owing mainly to protectionist policies. More than Obama-era U.S. taxpayer–funded aid or even the Trump administration’s federally backed financing for investment, enhanced trade in textiles would kickstart economic growth, create jobs, and improve Pakistan’s trade balance. It would also drive greater Pakistani demandfor imports of cotton and LNG from the United States to power its factories.

The United States should work to help a wider cross section of Pakistanis benefit from outside investments, even if some of those investments began with CPEC. Working bilaterally or through multilateral institutions, the United States should encourage Pakistan’s government to enact market-opening reforms and offer technical assistance where possible. During his February 2020 visit to Islamabad, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross correctly highlighted the need to improve “Pakistan’s business environment, including through developing a consistent tax framework, promoting regulatory transparency, and strengthening the intellectual property ecosystem.” Beyond exhortations and encouragement, the United States should share its considerable technical expertise on all of these issues with Pakistan by, for instance, expanding aid projects focused on Pakistan’s business climate.

In addition to new policies on education, trade, and investment, the United States should aim to compete with Chinese influence in Pakistan in smaller ways that nonetheless show how a can-do approach can address everyday problems faced by millions of Pakistanis. An example of one such successful U.S. policy was the decision by the U.S. embassy and consulates throughout Pakistan to publicize reliable air quality data from their own monitoring equipment. In a country where roughly 128,000 people die annually from air pollution and where official state sources tend to downplay the severity of the issue, the move has had a disproportionate and positive effect. The publication of U.S. data advances the cause of Pakistani environmental activists who are working to raise awareness about air pollution, promote healthier practices among children and the elderly, reduce emissions by encouraging different commuting patterns, and pressure local authorities to do more to address environmental issues. U.S. policymakers should consider whether there are other, analogous policies that would leverage and highlight U.S. technologies, data, and free access to reliable information.

Washington should also reflect on which aspects of Chinese influence in Pakistan are likely to have the most detrimental consequences for U.S. interests in the region over the long run. Certain types of infrastructure carry with them more political influence than others. Big-budget Chinese power plants or railway lines are, in this context, likely less worrisome than fiber-optic cables and telecommunications hardware. In January 2019, Chinese telecom giant Huawei installed a 510-mile fiber-optic line from the western Chinese city of Kashgar to Islamabad, just one piece in a larger network that will tie Pakistani data flows to China. Chinese telecommunications technologies bring with them the potential for Beijing to gain greater control over data, more effectively censor and surveil communications, and erode freedoms, including Pakistan’s freedom to oppose ever closer and more exclusive ties with China. In other words, the main U.S. challenge is not related to infrastructure or industrial competition between Chinese and Western firms; instead, it is a story about political influence, illiberal governance, and technological trends that undermine freedom.

U.S. officials have made their concerns about Huawei abundantly clear, but not even close allies like the United Kingdom are entirely willing or able to forego Chinese equipment. Pakistan and other cash-strapped states are even more likely to buy from China. In countries like Pakistan, the United States would be smart to develop and disseminate technological tools—both hardware and software—that enable Pakistani journalists, politicians, and academics to access reliable information and data and safely share their ideas with others. In partnerships with American technology companies, the U.S. government can benefit from efforts like Project Shield, a free service developed by Jigsaw (a company owned by Google parent Alphabet) designed to protect the websites of journalists and activists from distributed denial of service attacks that would otherwise shut them down. Furthermore, U.S. support for Pakistan’s defenders of human rights and liberal values need not be limited to the online world. The U.S. government should also expand its assistance to programs like Scholars at Risk, an organization that partners with academic institutions to offer temporary refuge to academics threatened by harassment or incarceration.

LONG-TERM GEOPOLITICAL CONSIDERATIONS

Over nearly six decades, ties between Beijing and Islamabad have centered on military and strategic cooperation far more than on economic development. As Pakistan’s all-weather ally and main external balancer against India, China has supplied the Pakistani military with important components in its nuclear, missile, and conventional arsenals.

Looking to the future, a core question for U.S. policymakers will be how Chinese arms, from tanks and jets to tactical nuclear-capable missiles and drones, are likely to affect the India-Pakistan military balance. U.S. planners need to keep a close eye on the evolution of China-Pakistan defense cooperation, especially in the nuclear realm, but also in new areas like cyberwar, where Chinese assistance to Pakistan could tip the balance against India in a future conflict. China has historically been willing to circumvent arms control agreements to help its friends in Pakistan, so as tensions grow between Washington and Beijing, the obstacles to new arms transfers may diminish.  

This issue assumes greater strategic relevance to Washington as policymakers are increasingly eager to bolster India as a partner and counterweight to China in Asia. U.S. policymakers will need to consider the net effect of U.S. support to India and Chinese support to Pakistan, bearing in mind that New Delhi may be inclined to train its new arms on Pakistani targets rather than on Chinese ones. A South Asian arms race could turn into a costly—and exceedingly dangerous—distraction from Washington’s competition with Beijing.

At the same time, Washington should consider the long-term potential that Pakistan offers China in terms of military power projection. There are many reasons to anticipate that China will eventually establish a permanent naval presence on Pakistan’s coast at or near Gwadar. A second military base of the sort that the People’s Liberation Army opened in 2017 in Djiboutiis not something that, in itself, should inspire undue concern at the Pentagon. Still, it would offer China the strategic benefit of an overland route to the Arabian Sea, a critical point on the way to the hydrocarbon-rich Persian Gulf.

This is but one facet in the wider story of China’s expanding presence in the Middle East, a new development with uncertain consequences for the United States, whose own interest in the region appears to be waning. Even so, American military planners will need to assess the implications of these developments for U.S. forces in the region.

CONCLUSION

It is not surprising that the Trump administration aims to sharpen the distinctions between Chinese ventures like CPEC and the United States’ own overseas initiatives. Indeed, Washington has every reason to make sure that international audiences understand that Beijing’s BRI projects often come with hefty price tags and may not deliver on promises of jobs or sustainable economic growth. U.S. diplomats are correct to sense that audiences in countries like Pakistan are now more sensitive to the limitations of partnership with China than they were in the recent past. Future phases of CPEC are likely to be more fraught with difficulty than was the first.

Yet the Pakistani case is illustrative; although Pakistan’s own enthusiasm for CPEC has waned over the past five years, Washington’s criticism of the China-Pakistan relationship is unlikely to win friends or influence in Islamabad. Too many Pakistanis are politically and financially beholden to China. Rather than publicly talk down China’s initiatives, U.S. diplomats should talk up U.S. ones. Rather than competing on Chinese terms, U.S. officials should focus on the United States’ unique advantages. Rather than being distracted by the terms of CPEC’s investments in physical infrastructure, Washington should keep an eye on strategic and political developments in China-Pakistan relations of greater long-term significance.

The United States has little to lose from new Pakistani roads, power plants, or railways. Even a new Chinese-built port at Gwadar is unlikely to deliver significant strategic advantage to China in the near term. However, where Chinese involvement in Pakistan’s telecommunications, security, and defense technologies tilts the balance toward repressive, illiberal rule and regional instability, U.S. policymakers should take action. Along the way, they should also aim to find a balance between outcompeting China in political and strategic terms and pursuing tactical cooperation with Beijing on issues of immediate importance, such as preventing war between India and Pakistan and countering international terrorism in Afghanistan.

This will not be an easy balance to strike. But in South Asia as elsewhere around the world, U.S. policymakers would be better off grappling with the complexity of the challenge posed by China’s growing influence than by merely railing against it.    

Daniel Markey is the author of China’s Western Horizon: Beijing and the New Geopolitics of Eurasia (Oxford University Press, 2020). He is also a senior research professor in international relations and the academic director of the Master of Arts in Global Policy program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

NOTES

1 Andrew Small, The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Politics (London: Hurst Publishers, 2020), 186, 183, https://www.hurstpublishers.com/book/the-china-pakistan-axis/.

2 Daniel Markey, China’s Western Horizon: Beijing and the New Geopolitics of Eurasia(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), https://global.oup.com/academic/product/chinas-western-horizon-9780190680190.

3 Author’s meetings with senior Pakistani military officials, October 2019, Rawalpindi, Pakistan.

4 Pakistan student total in 2018–2019 was 7,957, compared with 202,014 from India and 369,548 from China. See “2019 Fast Facts” from the report “Open Doors,” Institute for International Education, https://www.iie.org/-/media/Files/Corporate/Open-Doors/Fast-Facts/Open-Doors-2019-Fast-Facts.ashx?la=en&hash=1FF4995155DE3E0F186A1E880D2CB6A0C7302C42. On new U.S. visa restrictions for Pakistan, see Ashfaq Ahmed, ed., “U.S. Drastically Reduces Visa Validity for Pakistanis in Certain Categories,” Gulf News: Pakistan, March 6, 2019, https://gulfnews.com/world/asia/pakistan/us-drastically-reduces-visa-validity-for-pakistanis-in-certain-categories-1.62487952. On visa application rejection rates (Pakistan at 47.9 percent, India at 26.1 percent), see Natasha Frost and Dan Kopf, “What Are the Chances of Being Rejected For a Travel Visa to the U.S.?,” Quartz, August 28, 2019, https://qz.com/1696508/what-are-the-chances-of-being-rejected-for-a-tourist-or-business-visa/. On the Trump administration’s spike in rates of denial for work visas, see “H-1B Denial Rates: Past and Present,” National Foundation for American Policy, April 2019, https://nfap.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/H-1B-Denial-Rates-Past-and-Present.NFAP-Policy-Brief.April-2019.pdf.


Source: https://carnegietsinghua.org/2020/04/08/how-united-states-should-deal-with-china-in-pakistan-pub-81456

April 24, 2020

Miners, the Horsekeeper and Pneumoconiosis – a documentary by Jiang Nengjie (Dec. 2019)


Miners, the Horsekeeper and Pneumoconiosis – a documentary by Jiang Nengjie (Dec. 2019)­
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­This is a side of China we don’t get to see too often,  a side of China that Chinese censors take great pains to scrub off our screens, the reverse side of President Xi’s “China Dream”— poverty, corruption and an illegal coal miner left to die at home from the terminal lung disease pneumoconiosis. “A decade ago, they had to bribe [local officials]. A decade later they can’t even get an ambulance to come,” comments one viewer. “We're not trying to say bad things, we're just trying to tell the truth”, writes another.

Shot over a period of eight years, the film follows the fates of director Jiang Nengjie’s relatives in rural Hunan. From the mind-numbing working conditions of illegal mines, to the harsh realities of health care and schooling in rural China, Jiang takes us into the intimacy of these people’s lives. His film has no voice-over, no special effects and no clear political line. It is raw, sobering, slow-moving, but real. This is certainly not your next Tiger King or other blockbuster, but an important and praiseworthy documentary it is.

“Miners, the Horsekeeper and Pneumoconiosis” (矿民、马夫、尘肺病) is free to watch. “This documentary has no way of being shown or distributed in public, so please share the download link discretely”, comments Jiang on Chinese social networking service Douban. The director says he hopes something will be done to prevent other people from developing pneumoconiosis and “to prevent so many families from falling into poverty as a result of it.”

Review by MERICS junior analyst Thomas des Garets Geddes

Media coverage and sources:

International boundaries will be redrawn in the post-Corona world – Vivek Sinha


sangar publication

 - 24 Apr, 2020 at 1:19 pm
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The Coronavirus pandemic is all set to change the world. Nope, I am not talking about the newly hyped “Work from Home (WFH)” culture or about the never ending trade wars among super powers. I am, in fact, pointing towards a much bigger change that takes place after decades of decadence in civilizations.

 

Yes, it’s the world order that’s changing. And the novel Coronavirus, aka the novel ChinaVirus, has only expedited this change. So in this post-Corona world the earlier economic models will give way to newer businesses, and, importantly, international boundaries will be redrawn.

In the post-Cold War system, soft power rested within a bunch of haloed institutions such as the WHO (World Health Organisation), UNHRC (United Nations Human Rights Council) and others under the tutelage of UNO. These soft power centres are now wobbling. Even multilateral trade bodies such as the WTO (World Trade Organisation) that had been under severe strain will now face fresh irritants.

Coronavirus pandemic has only accentuated these strains such that the fissures are now visible as large cracks. And, as these cracks widen the older world order will give way. It’s no longer a question of “If”, not even “When” because the novel Coronavirus has already ushered in this change, which is underway. The real question to ponder upon is “How” will the world order change and “What” shape it could take in the future.

Indicators

US President Donald Trump withholding the funding of WHO is one of the decisive blows. The symbolism of Trump’s action is momentous. Already there were loud murmurs over WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom’s mishandling, misreporting and blatant favouring of China about Coronavirus and its origin during the last couple of months. Despite new age media organisations and social media being awash with exposes of Dr Tedros’s partisan behaviour, the mainstream media took it upon itself to defend Tedros’ actions. Just when this mainstream media had managed to cement the narrative that Dr Tedros is a ‘saint’ who along with Communist China was working to save humanity from the deadly Coronavirus, President Trump spoiled the party. On April 14, President Trump announced that the US will withhold over $400 to $ 500 million grants-in-aid to the WHO. The world was stunned at this announcement that came in the middle of a global pandemic. US is the major donor nation to WHO. At $40 million, China gives a mere one tenth to WHO, when compared with US’ grants. Yet, if the WHO chief Dr Tedros has blatantly favoured China then it points to severe accountability issues within WHO and that’s the underlying message in Trump’s diktat.

US withholding funds to WHO is a major embarrassment that has put a big question mark over its credibility, and also on its future. Mind you, WHO is no small organisation, its representatives sit on member nation’s government health panels and even have a say in deciding the health policies of member countries.

Well, WHO is just the beginning, it’s the first loose brick that could be pulled out from the decrepit wall of United Nations. US under President Donald Trump has understood China’s gambit of infiltrating international organisations with its sympathisers and (mis)using these platforms to expand its influence. This is part of China’s statecraft.

The next in line could be UN’s Human Rights Commission. Trump had already given indications that UNHRC has been compromised. In fact, almost all big brand global human rights organisations have become the den of radical Islamists and China-backed communists and their dismantling will be the next in line.

These changes will not stop here. American and European Universities where China could plant its ‘scientists’ and ‘research scholars’ to siphon off research of importance will now come to a halt. China’s stratagem of enriching itself with the invention of others will now fall flat. It would not be able to enrich itself by copying the scientific achievements and stealing away the patents. That time is passé.

Another major indication has come in from Japan. The Japanese government minced no words when it announced that it is doling out a $2.2 billion package for its companies to move their production bases out of China. Samsung, the South Korean tech giant announced to halt mobile production in China. Several other multinational corporations are in the process of shifting their production bases outside China.

European corporate giants that have seen their businesses suffer due to Coronavirus pandemic are also expected to harden their stance. Further, in yet another move with great symbolic significance, Julian Reichelt, Editor-in-Chief of Germany’s largest newspaper Bild has sent a bill of $165 billion (Euro 150 billion) to China as claims for damages to the German economy. The point is not about the locus standi of Germany’s claims on China, rather about an indication of the mood in Europe. Ditto for Italy, France, Spain and UK that have literally been brought to their knees due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

Unlike China’s totalitarian Communist regime, Europe is a vibrant democracy where the masses have seen through the real face of China and its virus. Popular opinion is heavily anti-China in Europe. As and when this Coronavirus is tamed, the European business conglomerates will pull out of China and scout for different regions across the world. The potential suitors could be East Europe, India, Vietnam, East Asia and parts of Latin America and Africa. Already corporate boardroom discussions are centred on shifting manufacturing bases out of China. With corporate biggies stepping out of China the smaller ones will follow suit resulting in a direct impact on the employment prospects of over 180 million people that mainland China employs in export related jobs.

As these changes take effect they will provide enough ammunition on ground to fuel a widespread discontentment across China.

How?

The trickle down effects of these changes will have an adverse impact on the core of production ecosystems built diligently across China. In the post-Corona world order with production bases shifting out of China in droves there’s bound to be massive job losses within mainland China. This will create seismic waves for the ruling communist party and for President Xi Jinping. Xi Jinping, CCP (Chinese Communist Party) and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have been ruling China with an iron hand and have managed to quell all dissent. Till now. Supressing dissent will be much difficult this time. Pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong will be come back with renewed vigour and will be ably supported by mainland Chinese workers. Whether there will be a repeat of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests or even far greater than that is too early to predict. All will depend on how cohesive Xi Jinping is able to keep the burgeoning People’s Liberation Army together. Amidst all these fault lines, even a single spark of dissent amongst the senior ranks of Chinese Army might cause China to implode.

Islamist-Communist Nexus

The economic recession that was being brushed aside over the last couple of years is now staring in our face. Crude oil price is at a historic low. WTI (West Texas Intermediate) prices in the US touched the negative domain for the first time in history. Negative price meant sellers were willing to pay the buyers to lift crude oil stocks. This means OPEC (Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) members (read Middle East Islamic nations) will be under pressure. It’s an open secret that radical Islamic fundamentalism across the world is funded by petrodollars. And these Islamic fundamentalists have always found support in Communist-controlled mainstream media groups. In the post-Corona world both will have their backs to the wall. Trump has already declared war against mainstream media by calling it “LameStream”. With petrodollars vanishing into thin air and China under severe strain, the Islamist nations and China will get closer to create a joint front or enter into a formal military alliance.

As a fallout of this unholy alliance, Pakistan that’s virtually on the brink of economic meltdown and has loaned its nation to China in the form of CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor), will be willing to dance to the tunes of its Chinese masters.

But there’s a twist in this tale.

Pakistan is staring at major upheavals across its two poles. On its North, the Pakistani Pashtuns are getting restive and defying the authority of Rawalpindi. Pashtuns across the practically defunct Durand Line in Afghanistan are increasingly associating themselves with the demands of their Pashtun brethren on the Pakistani side. As fault lines accentuate in this post-Corona world, Pashtuns will be at odds with the China-Pakistan nexus.

Down South, the Baloch freedom fighters have stepped up their efforts to seek independence of Balochistan from Pakistan. Despite Pakistan Army’s desperate attempts to subjugate Balochistan, the Baloch freedom fighters keep striking at regular intervals on strategic CPEC locations. A few days ago Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) fired rocket missiles at the under construction Gwadar International Airport putting an abrupt halt to the Gwadar airport operations. Such attacks are likely to increase in post-Corona world that will ensure that the $60 billion CPEC remains a pipe dream for both Pakistan and China.

In the coming months, both Balochistan and Pashtun movements that are already at odds with the China-Pakistan nexus will gain momentum and redraw the international boundaries in South Asia.

Postscript: The transition in world order will happen sooner rather than later. And this transition will be quite painful. As a marked departure from earlier changes, this time the distinctions between opposing camps will not be water tight. Despite a surge in nationalism, division between opposing camps will be fuzzy and not according to the national boundaries. Individuals and groups who had thrived in the earlier set up, either from UN organs or with blessings from Chinese-Islamic nexus will form an alliance. The conflict will be about thoughts and ideologies.

 



Vivek Sinha  

April 23, 2020

Central Banks and the Next Crisis: From Deflation to Stagflation


  • world currencies
04/22/2020

All over the world, governments and central banks are addressing the pandemic crisis with three main sets of measures:

  • Massive liquidity injections and rate cuts to support markets and credit.
  • Unprecedented fiscal programs aimed at providing loans and grants for the real economy.
  • Large public spending programs, fundamentally in current spending and relief measures.

However, they may cause deeper problems than those they aim to solve.

When governments try to artificially boost debt and demand in a supply shock, the risk is the creation a massive deflationary spiral driven by debt saturation that is followed by stagflation when supply chains start to become insufficiently flexible.

This is a health crisis and a supply shock added to the forced shutdown of the economy. As such, policies aimed at boosting demand have very little effect, because whatever demand is artificially created will not be followed by supply as long as the economy remains shut down. Considering that the opening of the economy will be gradual and subject to changes, it may be safe to say that the risk of achieving very little positive impact with these stimulus packages is very high.

Governments make two important mistakes in a lockdown as severe as this one: thinking that the impact is similar in all sectors and believing that a nationwide shutdown will be recovered from swiftly.

There are sectors that will take years to recover: travel and leisure, autos, retail, fashion, music, cinema, tourism and energy all face years of weak demand, balance sheet reparation, and survival-mode strategies.

The collapse in earnings and cash flow, followed by the very probable tax hikes that we will likely see, are also going to create an enormous burden on research and development, innovation, and technology.

The financial sector was already weak in 2019, suffering with negative rates, high nonperforming loans, and weak returns on tangible assets. The impact of the crisis will be severe on existing assets, with rising nonperforming loans and downgrades of earnings. If we add to this that most governments’ stimulus packages are based on approving massive loans for companies that face years of difficulties, the strain on banks is going to be very significant and may lead to a financial crisis after a supply shock.

The key measures that need to be taken in a supply shock with a forced lockdown are supply-side measures: eliminating taxes throughout the lockdown to preserve the business fabric and reducing unnecessary expenditure to accommodate higher healthcare costs.

Some governments, such as the United States administration, are combining both demand- and supply-side measures. Others—most of the large eurozone economies except maybe Germany—are only focused on policies driven to provide credit relief and increased spending.

With these measures in mind, and considering the slump in economic activity, corporate profits, wages, and tax revenues that will be generated, global debt is likely to soar above 350 percent of GDP. This means that the vast majority of the stimulus packages will be aimed at financing higher debt created by government noneconomic-return current spending and hibernating large companies, while small and medium enterprises, which have little access to debt and maybe no assets to leverage, simply disappear. Startups and small businesses may face a double negative of zero access to equity and a collapse in sales.

When governments and central banks announce massive stimulus packages at the very beginning of a crisis, they bet on a speedy recovery and a return to normal as if nothing had happened. This is far from the case. Debt-fueled stimulus may cause a lengthy and painful recovery, generating a deflationary spiral short-term that will likely be addressed with more monetary and fiscal stimulus and then producing stagflation.

The evidence shows that the global economy has recovered in a much slower and indebted way from each of the past crises. However, none of the crises of the past fifty years have been remotely similar to this one. We have never witnessed a global shutdown of the entire economy, and policymakers have no idea about the mid- and long-term ramifications, so doubling down on debt and liquidity is, at least, dangerous.

How do we go from crisis to deflation and then to stagflation?

The process would be the following:

  • The crisis is created by the pandemic and the subsequent closing of entire economies in a domino effect, causing strains on supply chains as well as a domino of credit events in highly indebted sectors.
  • Governments bail out the large and strategic sectors, as well as citizens, with massive loans, grants, and fiscal measures but leave behind the preservation of supply chains at a global level. As the crisis deepens and lasts longer, governments decide to take protectionist and interventionist measures that further erode supply chains. This period is deflationary because money velocity collapses, investment stops, consumption weakens, and citizens try to hold on to the little savings they have.
  • The deflationary and indebted spiral is addressed with more liquidity and more debt, but by now the supply chains have been irreparably damaged and interventionist measures add to rising inflation in the prices of essential goods and services. The economy remains in stagnation but prices creep up.

I genuinely hope that this will not happen. I would be delighted to be wrong.

The pandemic lockdown is showing us the importance of having open supply chains; diversified, global, and efficient companies; and competitive services. It also shows the importance of collaboration.

The solution to this crisis must be global and local at the same time: a global answer that ensures that cooperation and trade are preserved. The local answer must be aimed at ensuring a rapid recovery of the lost jobs by preserving the business fabric and ensuring that companies have the equipment and protocols to come out stronger.

Interventionism will only lead to stagflation.

Originally published at Dlacalle.com

Author:

Daniel Lacalle

Daniel Lacalle has a PhD in Economics and is author of Escape from the Central Bank TrapLife in the Financial Markets, and The Energy World Is Flat.

Coronavirus sends American universities over a cliff

AXIOS.com

Illustration of a graduation cap falling off of a cliff

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Hundreds of thousands of high school graduates from all over the country and the world are set to start college this August — and they have no idea what they're getting into.

Why it matters: The coronavirus pandemic is accelerating a troubling trend of falling enrollment at American universities. This could push many institutions over the edge.

The big picture: The pandemic is hitting universities amid an intensifying, nationwide debate over whether college is worth the cost.

  • Rising tuition, coupled with fear of accruing mountains of student debt, have chipped away at enrollment. In 2019, 250,000 fewer students were enrolled compared with 2018, per NPR.

Now institutions are contending with a crisis unlike anything they've navigated in recent history.

While only a few universities have finalized their plans for the fall, a normal semester seems increasingly like a pipe dream. And the financial punishment that colleges will endure is becoming clear.

  • Enrollment could plummet even further — especially among incoming freshmen unwilling to pay sky-high tuition for online classes.
  • On top of that, many universities will suffer lost revenue from athletics, room and board.
  • For public campuses, state money could dry up. "Funding for higher education is very volatile during a recession," says Robert Kelchen, a professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey who studies higher education finance. "It's the easiest place to cut in state budgets."
  • The University of Michigan has predicted it will lose $1 billion due to the coronavirus. The University of Kentucky projects a $70 million hit.
  • The University of Arizona has announced furloughs and pay cuts for faculty, per the Arizona Daily Star. And many colleges and universities have already implemented hiring freezes, reports Inside Higher Ed.

While universities grapple with the pandemic, millions of students' futures hang in the balance — and students and parents aren't getting many answers from schools. "Colleges are trying to wait as long as they can to make this decision," Kelchen says.

Diane Klein, a law professor at the University of La Verne in California, tells Axios that "so many universities are so enrollment-sensitive, so tuition-dependent, that we can't be honest with our prospective students about what they’re going to get."

Her advice to incoming freshmen is to take a year off and start college in 2021 if they can — but that's not an option for many students.

  • Nate Davis, a senior at a high school outside New York City, is planning to attend Dartmouth this fall to play lacrosse — and a gap year wouldn't work because he was recruited as part of this year's class. "No matter what, I think I'll be going in the fall, whether that's there or at home," he said.
  • Ellyn Fritz is heading into her junior year at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania and has been taking online classes this spring. She has cancelled plans to study abroad in South America next semester, but still intends to move back to an off-campus apartment in Lancaster this fall and take classes from there — online or not.
  • Andrew Fleming, a senior outside of Detroit, hasn't made his final college decision but is planning to major in musical theater. "Online classes don't really appeal to me because there's such a big gap in the fundamentals of being a performing arts major," he says. He plans to take a gap year if classes are held remotely.

The bottom line: The likeliest scenario for America's students is another semester of Zoom lectures and seminars — meaning they'll miss out on athletics, arts, Greek life, extracurriculars and everything else that defines the college experience

April 22, 2020

New Baloch Political Party will be Announced 1st May . Professor Naela Quadri Baloch

Bolan Times ( CANADA) : Professor Naela Quadri Baloch said that New Baloch Political Party will be Announced 1st May 2020.

Talking to Bolan Times Professor Naela Quadri informed our correspondent that Committe for chalking out party draft Manifesto nominated. Party formation will be announced on 1st May 2020.

” Purpose ot Establishing New Baloch Political Party, Today via zoom we Baloch discussed again The Baloch elders, youth activists, professors, writers, philosphers, Human rights activists, and female political workers attended the conference. The attendees were from differenr parts of the globe” Professor Naela Said .

I am very confident that this Party will bring a real change in Baloch Political struggle , in our today meeting Reresentatives from eastern and western Balochistan, Gulf, Europe, Canada, and Baloch Representatives from USA attended this meeting.

” After detailed discussion, Question and Answer Sessions the representatives nominated and appointed members for the Manifesto Committee. The committe includes a Baloch Professor member, Two Baloch thinkers and writers, Four youth members including a female member. The committe has been tasked to draft the foundation of the party manifesto and put forward for approval. This was agreed that the formation of Party will be announced on 1st May 2020. And 1st May will be considered as the Party foundation day. The meeting was continued for more then three hours” Professor added.

How technology is protecting endangered species


Artificial intelligence, the cloud, and smart cameras are being used to catch poachers and track wildlife populations.

Cambodia is home to 16 globally endangered species, like the Asian elephant, tigers, and leopards. Conservationists there are working with a Harvard computer scientist to stop the poaching that is pushing so many species to the brink of extinction.

It's just one of a growing number of collaborations bringing technologists and conservationists together to fight to protect wildlife from being wiped off the face of the planet. Environmentalists have long had a daunting challenge ahead of them when it comes to protecting animals from poachers, habitat loss, pollution, and climate change. They're now hoping, though, that technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), drones, GPS trackers, smart cameras, and the cloud could give them the upper hand they've been looking for.

"It is horrifying to think about the possibility that we may be leaving a world behind where keystone species like tigers, elephants, and rhinos may just be gone," says Milind Tambe, the Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science and director of the Center for Research in Computation and Society at Harvard University. "We don't want to have to tell our children, 'Well, they're all gone.' We don't want a world like that."

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, which coordinates the organization's environmental activities, the earth is in the midst of a crisis, with 150 to 200 species of plants, insects, birds, and mammals reportedly going extinct every 24 hours. Biologists say that's 1,000 times the rate that's considered natural extinction. And a 2019 U.N. report notes that approximately 1 million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction, many within decades. More recently, research from the University of Arizona suggests that one-third of plant and animal species could be gone in 50 years.

Here are some more alarming numbers:

  • In 2018, three bird species vanished from the earth.
  • In Tanzania, the elephant population has dropped by 20 percent in recent years.
  • Because of widespread poaching for their horns, as of 2018, there were only two northern white rhinos—both female and incapable of natural reproduction—left in Kenya.
  • An estimated 100 African elephants are killed each day by poachers seeking ivory, meat, and body parts.
  • Fewer than 450 North Atlantic right whales, including a little more than 100 breeding females, remain. With so many dying and so few being born, scientists warn that the species may not survive more than another 25 years.

With numbers so staggering and dire, conservationists around the globe increasingly are turning to technologists and tech to protect endangered animals and hopefully save them from extinction. Seeing the plight of many species, tech-savvy people are offering their time and expertise to track animals, analyze their habitats and availability of food, and better understand population dynamics.

It's not new for wildlife conservationists to draw on technology like cameras and tracking collars. What's new is the explosion in technologies like AI, machine learning (ML), the Internet of Things, 5G, wireless, and the cloud. And that explosion is touching many industries, including conservation.

"Every industry is going to be changed by it," says Jeff Kagan, an independent industry analyst. "It's transforming so much. It only makes sense that it's transforming wildlife protection. Where before they could never really follow the animals and the paths they take, and the things they're eating, and how they're living, now we can see exactly where these animals are and what they're doing. And think about how much it will advance in the next 10 years." 

Outsmarting the poachers

Professor Milind Tambe (right) during patrol in Malaysia. Image credit: Milind Tambe 

Tambe, who for the past 15 years has been working on how AI can benefit society, made a slight turn six or seven years ago when he began to wonder how technology could be used to protect animals.

The computer scientist is the creator and driving force behind Protection Assistant for Wildlife Security (PAWS), predictive AI software geared to analyze massive amounts of data and then use ML, game theory, and mathematical modeling to take on the poachers decimating many species of animals around the world, including Cambodia.

For instance, intensive poaching of both Cambodian tigers and their prey have caused a rapid decline in the big cats. Today, the World Wildlife Fund reports that there are no longer any breeding populations of wild tigers left in the country, making them functionally extinct there. As for wild elephants, it's generally estimated that only 300 to 600 remain in Cambodia, down from 2,000 in 1995 and 500 to 1,000 in 1999, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N.

Normally, park rangers and environmentalists study maps trying to figure out where poachers may be laying traps or lying in wait to kill protected animals. The PAWS system goes beyond human gut instinct and crunches data to predict where the poachers will be working, where the animals are in the most danger, and the best patrol routes for the rangers.

Tambe has been extensively testing PAWS in Cambodia. Conservationists there are finding poaching traps five times more today than they were before they began using his AI-based system.

"I kept saying, 'I think AI can help,'" he says. "Where are the poachers going to hit next? There are thousands of square kilometers in national parks. There are hundreds of rangers. They can't be everywhere. If we can tell them where they need to be [to stop the poaching], that's important."

Now, Tambe's PAWS system is being adapted to work with 800 global national parks that use SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool) software to measure and evaluate the effectiveness of conservation and wildlife law enforcement. With the help of an AI engineer from Microsoft, Tambe has been working for the past six to eight months to integrate PAWS with the SMART software and enable it all to run in the cloud. The system, which so far has been running only on an experimental basis, is scheduled to launch this spring.

"We are honored to be able to contribute," he says. "Some people think of AI being a technology that might be harmful in some ways, maybe taking jobs away. It's a surprise to people that you can apply AI to protect wildlife and use it for social good. The gift to us, as AI researchers, has been opening the door to new AI research challenges so we can advance the state of the art in artificial intelligence."

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Saving the salmon

In the Northern California foothills of the Sierra Nevada range, a group of conservationists, the Friends of Auburn Ravine, has been working to protect the local wild Chinook salmon, also known as king salmon. The salmon's numbers have been slashed by logging, dams, overfishing, and pollution. Scientists estimate that 29 percent of the Pacific salmon populations have become extinct in the past 240 years.

The group of volunteers set up cameras to record video of the fish as they migrate upstream to spawn every fall and winter. They were trying to collect data on the number of salmon swimming through, to garner support to improve habitat and facilitate natural migration of adult and juvenile salmon.

The problem was that volunteers were sitting and staring at a seemingly endless amount of video to count fish swimming by.

"It's boring work looking at the videos," says Brad Cavallo, president of Cramer Fish Sciences and a board member of the Friends of Auburn Ravine. "It's easy to miss something because you just space out, but estimates are important so we know how to set harvest limits and how the fish are doing."

Eric Hubbard, a master technologist who has worked at Hewlett Packard Enterprise since 1999, came along and changed that boring, but important, work.

Hubbard says two or three years ago, his dad, who is a volunteer with Friends of Auburn Ravine, told him about video watch parties where volunteers ate pizza and counted fish.

"It was a cool volunteer effort," says Hubbard. "I saw their enthusiasm and effort, but it hurt me to see them doing it so inefficiently. It took huge amounts of hours to look at videos to count these fish. I knew we could automate this and make it so much easier on them."

Hubbard, using the annual 60 hours of paid volunteer time he receives from HPE through the company's community involvement program, HPE Gives, traded out the volunteers' security cameras, which used proprietary protocols that were difficult to work with, for new digital underwater and overhead cameras—dubbed salmon cams—with standard protocols and formats.

Using the Java programming language, Hubbard wrote 5,000 lines of code to create a software program, called FishSpotter, to detect and document passing fish. Raw digital video is uploaded to the cloud, where FishSpotter processes it. Using advanced image recognition to detect activity and identify salmon, FishSpotter automatically produces short GIF highlights of any passing salmon, so humans can then review it to confirm the fish species.

A passing fish captured by FishSpotter, a software program created by HPE's Eric Hubbard. Image credit: Friends of Auburn Ravine

The 2018-2019 migration season was the first to be monitored with the new digital system.

By eliminating the need to watch this large batch of data, FishSpotter was able to pare down 1.6 terabytes and 2,416 hours of raw data into just 101 gigabytes and 20.4 hours of GIF highlights for volunteers to vet and verify as salmon (or other wildlife or activity). In future seasons, Hubbard hopes to further refine FishSpotter's image recognition capabilities to narrow this data set of possible suspects down even further to further accelerate insights.

"I live in a real tech bubble," says Hubbard. "Everyone around me is tech-savvy. I look at these nonprofits and they're outside that bubble. They don't necessarily have the expertise to know what's possible. It's been very gratifying. Initially, it started out as helping people more than the salmon. Then as I got more involved, I was drawn into how important these fish are."

Tech to protect polar bears and rhinos

Colby Loucks, vice president of the Wildlife Conservation Program at the World Wildlife Fund U.S., says technology is increasingly a vital tool in wildlife conservation. And as a leader in the organization's Wildlife Crime Technology Project, which focuses on using cutting-edge technology to fight poaching, he says tech advancements have opened doors.

That's what led the group to create WildLabs.net, a global online community joining conservationists with technologists, engineers, data scientists, and entrepreneurs. With more than 3,000 active users, the group's mission is to use technology to tackle conservation issues, like illegal wildlife trade and poaching.

"We had conservationists trying to use technology, but they weren't technologists by training," says Loucks. "There were a lot of technologists around the world who have the skill sets, knowledge, and desire to help in conservation. WildLabs.net is about connecting those communities. We're piecing together innovative ideas between people with a conservation background and a technology background."

For instance, Loucks says conservationists are combining cameras with ML software trained to distinguish between animals and people. When the system identifies humans, as opposed to zebras or rhinos, passing by a camera, rangers are notified so they can check to see if the people are poachers.

Others in Africa are using thermographic cameras that use infrared radiation to detect elephant and rhino poachers.

Loucks notes that the smart thermal camera technology was installed in 2016 in two different areas of Kenya's Lake Nakuru National Park, a site known for its rhino conservation work. The year before the technology was installed, there were 17 attempted poaching events in the park, he says. The year the system was installed, two poachers were caught, and after that, there were no poaching incidents for the rest of the year and none in 2017 and 2018. In 2019, the system was used to catch another four poachers.

"We feel like that is a big success," says Loucks.

Installing tech near Lake Nakuru, Kenya. Image credit: James Morgan / WWF-US

Some scientists are even using environmental DNA (eDNA) technology, which can detect genetic material, such as traces of biological tissue and mucus, obtained directly from environmental samples like soil, sediment, and water. Loucks explains that scientists studying polar bears can scoop samples from streams or footprints in the Arctic snow. From that, they can pull up DNA and use that information to identify what the bears have been eating and even identify individual bears.

"The dream is that you might not see a bear, but if you get a polar bear footprint, you could still know quite a lot about it, which would be a big leap forward for tracking polar bears and seeing how climate change is impacting them," says Loucks. "It is an exciting time to be in the wildlife conservation space right now. We've seen a lot of developments and efforts using technologies to solve problems."

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.NHPE.com