MS Risk Blog

Will China see Taiwan as getting too big for its boots?

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The saying goes that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

“We will not accept the Beijing authorities’ use of ‘one country, two systems’ to downgrade Taiwan and undermine cross-strait status quo”. Words from none other than Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen.

China has always claimed Taiwan to be part of its territory, and has been overt in its threats to militarily bring it to heel if push comes to shove.  The hawkish Chinese rhetoric towards Taiwan has gotten ever more pointed since pro-independence President Tsai Ing-wen got re-elected earlier in the year in a landslide over an opposition candidate backed by Beijing. That said, there has been a cross current of events on the global stage that has put Taiwan in China’s crosshairs like nothing in the recent past – In what has no doubt been a frosty and contentious relationship between the two countries.

Chinese President Xi Jimping delivered the opening speech at the annual meeting of the World Health Organisation on May 18th making a number of pledges to the international battle to stem Covid-19, including a $2 billion commitment. However, China’s handling of the coronavirus, pre-pandemic stage, has drawn the ire and criticism of many nations – who complained over what was perceived as its lack of transparency and disclosure on the origins of the disease.

Taiwan, on the other hand has been eulogised as an exemplar of how to wage an effective response to Covid-19 with its pro-active public health policy accounting for only 7 deaths from 441 infections, and a rigorous regime of testing, tracing, and isolating of hundreds of thousands of its citizens. Against this backdrop, 29 countries, including America called for Taiwan to be at the WHO meeting as an observer. The request was blocked by Beijing, a move consistent with its stance of claim to Taiwan, and denying it any form of international recognition.

“Taiwan can help” is the sloganeering initiative used by Taiwan in its outreach to offer international donations and assistance to countries whose health care systems have been swamped by Covid-19 infections. In April, its foreign ministry announced the donation of 10 million masks to Europe, America, and the 15 countries with which it has diplomatic relations. US Secretary of state called the gesture from Taipei a “model for the World”. A “gesture of solidarity” were the words of Ursula von der Leyen President of the European Commission.  Taiwan is also working on bilateral partnerships and cooperation with America, Czech Republic, and India. These developments have been characterised by Beijing as a “despicable move and a political plot to use the Covid-19 Pandemic to achieve independence” and embarking on a wrongful path of confrontation with the motherland.

There is little doubt that Taiwan is taking advantage of its good fortunes on the International stage from the Covid-19 fall out, to ramp-up its soft power profile, and drive a wedge in the pro-Beijing global camp. America has sniffed opportunities similarly – by using Taiwan as a tool in its attempts to stymie Chinese Telecommunications behemoth Huawei. America has sought to traduce Huawei as a spying instrument for the Chinese government, and create stigma on the brand as it bids to win contracts to build 5G Networks of Countries America considers allies. Huawei is reliant on one of the biggest computer chip makers in the world – Taiwan Semi-Conductor manufacturing Company (TSMC) as a high-tech supply chain of the vital component – microchips. Washington has agreed to bear some of the cost of getting the Taiwanese chip making giant to set-up a manufacturing base in Arizona, with the upshot being a Taiwanese company at odds with a Chinese state backed company to the potential advantage of a rival – America.

What does this all mean? The Chinese have always emphasized the One China policy as the bedrock of its foreign relations. It has sought to use this position to ward off any form foreign overtures into this orbit it sees as its exclusive prerogative. Taiwan has flirted with the idea of its Independence. It has a vibrant democracy, and in recent surveys, its people have favoured closer ties with America rather than China. These latest developments mark an inflection point. China could never accept losing face, least not in the trifecta of American manoeuvrings on a Taiwanese Company, Taipei’s soft power projection, and all the blow-back that has come China’s way over the Covid-19 pandemic.

Taiwan’s recent positive global attention has sparked a chauvinistic response in China with calls for “reclaim” of the Island. Social media and the Chinese media have ratcheted-up calls for the Army to invade Taiwan.  America has stepped up its Naval presence close to the Taiwanese straits; CNN reports that in recent weeks, the Liaoning, China’s sole Aircraft carrier has sailed around the Island of Taiwan. It really does sound like the kettle is at boiling point.

Most analyst take a contrarian view, suggesting that military action by Beijing is not on the table. Timothy Heath, an international researcher at the RAND Corporation (a US think tank) muses that “China needs access to the (global) markets once they recover, and so it in China’s interests to maintain good ties with US and the World”.

That being said, no one can deny the rising tensions coming at such a precarious moment has a dangerous potential. There is a limit to how much Beijing can eschew, and if Taiwan goes off on a limb, China will probably suffer any cost, markets included – to protect its One China policy.



Will Cyber Surveillance Continue Post-COVID-19?

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Recently, historian Yuval Noah Harari said that people “could look back in 100 years and identify the coronavirus epidemic as the moment when a new regime of surveillance took over…”. Eastern European countries are currently moving towards unprecedented surveillance methods to enable tracking of suspected COVID-19 cases and to enforce lockdowns. Slovenia said it would not compromise the right to privacy in order to use technological tools that enable contact tracing. Meanwhile most other countries in the region have made such compromises.

Poland launched an app which uses a mobile location service and facial recognition, and sends random requests for users to take pictures as evidence that they’re home. Bulgarian police were authorised to request data from mobile and internet communications to monitor citizens under mandatory quarantine. Ukraine, Slovakia and Lithuania enacted laws enabling location tracking systems. Estonia instructed its statistics office to use mobile geolocation data from phone companies to study citizens’ movement. Serbia tracked Italian telephone numbers to check whether people returning from Italy were self-isolating. Albania and Croatia used drones to monitor compliance with lockdowns. Hungary issued a decree relaxing the obligation of authorities to notify individuals when collecting personal data when done for COVID-19 purposes. Moscow introduced an automatic permit checking system for public transport. If citizens don’t have permission to be outside they will be fined. In addition, Moscow’s 170,000 street cameras and facial recognition software now target possible coronavirus carriers who violate COVID-19 restrictions.

Opposition activists in Moscow say this will lead to unprecedented government intrusion, dubbing it a “digital concentration camp”. Meanwhile Moscow mayor Sobyanin said: “When we talk about the health and lives of an enormous amount of people, there’s no choice.” The right to private life is protected by international law under Art 8 ECHR and Art 17 ICCPR, but can be restricted under certain circumstances. It must serve to protect a legitimate aim, one of which are the protection of public health, and the measures adopted must be temporary; proportionate; and necessary. In many States, privacy rights have now given way to public health. States were warned in a joint statement by 107 organisations, including Amnesty International, to respect human rights when employing cyber surveillance to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. In its Statement on the processing of personal data in the context of COVID-19, the European Data Protection Board said that when it is not possible to only process anonymous mobile location data Member States should introduce legislative measures to safeguard public security when processing non-anonymized location data.

The system used in Moscow stores user data which Sobyanin said will be deleted after self-isolation ends. It is however not guaranteed that this user data will simply disappear. In this digital age, security leaks are a very real possibility. Sarkis Darbinyan, lawyer for NGO Roskomsvoboda which monitors online freedom, said there “is a high probability that once the epidemic ends this data will start leaking to the [black] market, which happens to so many other data bases”. This information could also be misused by employees in the government or be stolen by other countries. The data collected during a health crisis could be particularly vulnerable as it is collected and used in a rush. According to Richard Searle, senior security architect, this raises the risk that sufficient diligence and information risk management is not applied to these types of apps and initiatives. Mikhail Klimarev, a technology expert, said: “Personal data will leak out. You don’t have to ask a fortune-teller to see that because the system is being made in a hurry.”

There is also fear that governments will be reluctant to relinquish these tools after the crisis has passed. When speaking about the Russian government, Leonid Volkov, chief strategist to the opposition leader, said: “If they have created it, they will never allow themselves to turn it off. It’s too tempting.” In addition, Artem Kozlyuk of Roskomsvoboda warned that “…in Russia, it’s always done behind closed doors. There’s a danger that after all this is over, the authorities won’t want to put these tools away.” The country has already seen a decline in online freedom in the name of security. The concern that Russia will continue using these surveillance technologies is therefore not surprising.

On the positive side, some governments are openly acknowledging the privacy issues raised by implementing such measures. Many of the surveillance measures adopted are more overt. For instance, the app introduced in Poland is an open-source, voluntary app that uses encryption and is trying to meet privacy requirements. After passing a law allowing collection of phone data, Slovakian Justice Minister Maria Kolikova said that they “realize that this is an infringement of fundamental rights and freedoms, let’s not pretend it is not.” It is recognised that crisis management sometimes require exceptional measures that undermine human rights. Undermining privacy rights can be justified as location tracking could mitigate the spread. It gives governments a better overview of the infected population. Apps can also help health care systems notify people who might have been infected.

Meanwhile human rights group Privacy International has questioned the effectiveness of some of these tools. For instance, there is limited evidence that location data proved useful in handling and predicting the spread of Ebola. Bernadett Szel, opposition politician in Hungary, said that restricting data rights “is unnecessary and disproportionate, and furthermore does not help, even hinders the fight against the epidemic.” People might mistakenly be identified as exposed to the virus or, even more concerning, people exposed mistakenly not identified. Location surveillance systems can also have a disproportionate effect on vulnerable groups in society. UN special rapporteur Fionnuala Ni Aolain said that the “danger is that states, particularly non-democratic or less open societies, would use the opportunity given by the health emergency to crack down on particular minority groups, or individuals or groups that they see as highly problematic.”

History shows that, in emergencies, governments fast-track measures without sufficient scrutiny. Such measures have sometimes outlasted the emergencies they were meant to address. Aolain points to 9/11 and the fact that emergency powers introduced after this event was still in place after 20 years. Taylor Monahan, CEO of MyCrypto, said that COVID-19 has raised fear and irrationality similar to post-9/11, only “now we fear our neighbors.” The pandemic has given governments a new momentum to introduce and enforce these tools. In addition, new technology has made it even easier for States to monitor their citizens.

It must be recognised that government surveillance can be a useful tool in mitigating the spread of the coronavirus. The question is what happens after. Scholars and rights groups are concerned that cybersurveillance may become normalised during this period. “The data access allowed and the infrastructure built today will not necessarily disappear once the current pandemic is over, but may be expanded and used for other purposes,” said Cohen, head of policy at enterprise software company Privitar. Not only might some governments retain their newly developed surveillance tools, but the data collected during the pandemic could be stolen by hackers. While the COVID-19 pandemic might justify prioritising public health over privacy for the moment, there is a danger that some of these surveillance measures will stay in place.

Sweden’s Refusal to Implement Strict Lockdown

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Sweden has conducted an unusual approach towards the global coronavirus pandemic. The nation has rejected copying the measures implemented by other countries in Western Europe, which includes a complete nationwide lockdown. Instead, the country has been heavily relying on trusting public’s behaviour to follow the government’s request of social distancing. Some restrictions are implemented, such as banning public gatherings of more than 50 participants and visits to nursing homes. Some universities have also been closed and have instead implemented online learning. Other than that, everything is staying the same as there is no pandemic going. Primary schools, shops, restaurants, hair salons, and other public places have been kept open. The measure implemented is in stark contrast to the neighbouring Nordic countries which share similar cultural, geographical, and sociological traits such as Norway, Denmark, and Finland. The three neighbouring countries have implemented strict nationwide lockdowns, closing all schools, restaurants, and other public places. Sweden’s government however stated that lockdown in Sweden will be pointless because Swedes could be trusted to conduct social distancing. Around 75% of Sweden’s population agreed with the measures taken by the government. However, many of Sweden’s scientists have been accusing the government of experimenting with people’s lives. The international community has also condemned Sweden’s lack of action and accused the government of trying to reach ‘herd immunity’. The accusations have been denied by Swedish Minister of Health and Social Affairs, Lena Hallengren, stating that Sweden has no plan to create herd immunity and shares the same goals as other countries, which is to save people’s lives. Still, the World Health Organization (WHO) has called on Sweden to take more measures in regards to controlling the spread of the virus.  Other than that, data has shown several indications that Sweden’s refusal on implementing strict lockdown might be a failure and should be evaluated.

As of 30 April 2020, the confirmed cases of coronavirus in Sweden have reached 21,092 cases with 2,586 deaths. This statistic is significantly higher compared to the neighbouring Nordic countries. In Denmark, the confirmed cases of coronavirus have only reached 9,158 cases with 452 deaths. In Finland, the confirmed cases of coronavirus have only reached 4,995 cases with 211 deaths while in Norway, the confirmed cases of coronavirus have only reached 7,738 cases with 210 deaths. The confirmed cases in Sweden are more than double the numbers in Denmark, more than four times the numbers in Finland, and almost three times the numbers in Norway. In regards to the number of deaths, the statistics of Sweden’s fatalities related to the coronavirus shows that the number of deaths in Sweden is more than five times the numbers in Denmark and more than ten times the numbers in Finland and Norway. Sweden might have a bigger population than the other three Nordic countries, with around 10 million people while compared to some 5 million living in Denmark, Finland, and Norway respectively. However, the spread of coronavirus in Sweden will still be significantly higher and dangerous even if Sweden has the same population as Denmark, Finland, and Norway. For instance, one of the factors that affect this judgment is the death rate within each country.  According to the figures from John Hopkins University, the death rate in Sweden has reached more than 22 per 100,000 people, which is significantly higher than the three other Nordic countries. By contrast, the death rate in Denmark is only 7 per 100,000 people, while in Finland and Norway is only 4 per 100,000 people.

The statistics of confirmed cases, total deaths, and death rate in Sweden may not be as high as countries like Spain and Italy. However there are various complex differences between Sweden and these countries that make direct comparisons harder. For example, Italy has a higher aging population and a higher number of smokers within the country than Sweden. Also, the statistics in Sweden should be more similar to the neighbouring Nordic countries such as Denmark, Finland, and Norway, which share many similar traits with Sweden. There must be a reason why Sweden’s statistics are significantly higher than the neighbouring Nordic countries and the most obvious one is Sweden’s refusal on implementing strict nationwide lockdown. Even the Swedish Health Agency has predicted that 26% of the Stockholm population will have been infected by May 1 if the country does not make its measure on fighting coronavirus stricter. Therefore, it is believed that Sweden should implement more restrictions as other countries in order to achieve a better situation due to the global coronavirus pandemic.

ISIS’s Resurgence in Syria Amid the Coronavirus Outbreak

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On April 9th 2020 reports emerged that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) managed to take control of As-Sukhna, a town situated in the northern countryside of Homs governorate in Syria. The capture follows the release of propaganda videos by the group showcasing ISIS operations against the Syrian Army filmed in Syria’s Badia desert. As-Sukhna is the second largest city in the Badia after Palmyra and was first seized by ISIS in 2015 only to be retaken by Syrian government forces in 2017. ISIS’s capture of the town follows two other incidents relating to the group this month alone. On the 7th of April ISIS killed two members of the National Defence Force, an Iran established regime auxiliary force in eastern Deir al-Zor province. On the 6thof April ISIS executed a woman whom the group claimed was working with the Syrian regime. Such incidents shed light on ISIS’s capability to inflict costs and capture territory in Syria amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Syria has experienced an outbreak of the virus beginning in March 2020. As of April 30th 2020, the infection toll stands at 43 while the death toll is at three.

Measures have been taken in an attempt to contain the virus. For instance, the Kurdish-led autonomous administration of North and East Syria imposed a curfew starting March 23rd prohibiting movement among the subregions of northeast Syria. The Syrian ministry of interior declared a 12-hour curfew for the rest of Syria on the 25th of March and the Syrian government declared that the commuting of citizens between province centres and all other urban and rural areas is disallowed at all times save those with clearance. The United States, which leads the international coalition to defeat ISIS and deny it a safe haven, has expressed concerns that the Islamic State may rebound amid an unfolding humanitarian crisis particularly in the north east of the country under the control of the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces as local officials sound the alarm about a lack of resources to deal with the outbreak. The US has sent some supplies such as basic medical equipment to the Syrian Democratic Forces guarding roughly 10,000 imprisoned ISIS fighters. The concern is that worsening conditions could spark riots in the detention centres providing ISIS with the opportunity to recruit additional members to its cause and take back territories it lost.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) also known as the Islamic State (IS) and by its Arabic acronym Da’esh is a Salafi Jihadist group following a radical and fundamentalist doctrine of Sunni Islam. ISIS is designated a terrorist group by the United Nations. As a splinter group of Al-Qaida, ISIS gained the world’s attention by seizing territory in Iraq when it drove out the Iraqi army from major cities including Mosul in 2014. The group furthered their territorial gains in Syria where it captured vast swaths of land to create an unrecognised proto state regarded by ISIS as a Caliphate including a significant number of wilayats or provinces with their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi considered Caliph of the Caliphate. In the height of their power ISIS controlled 88,000 square kilometres or 34,000 square miles of land in both Iraq and Syria. In addition to gaining territory and establishing a proto state the group also incorporated a number of other groups around the world into their Caliphate recognising them as provinces.

ISIS became present in the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Afghanistan Pakistan, Nigeria and the northern caucuses. Some, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria who pledged allegiance to Baghdadi in March 2015, were already in possession of territory. ISIS possessed a two-tier systematized vertical command structure managing the territory and its inhabitants and had thousands of foreign fighters swelling the ranks, by 2015 ISIS was reported to have at least 30,000 dedicated foreign fighters according to a UN report. The group gained such a following through effective propaganda campaigns spread over social media. ISIS had the capacity to generate 200,000 tweets and could disseminate as much as 38 unique propaganda events daily successfully spreading their ideology around the world inspiring terrorist acts. By 2016, 1200 people around the world had been killed in ISIS terrorist attacks both coordinated and inspired. This figure excludes attacks in Iraq and Syria. Despite the quick and successful gains since 2014 the group began losing territory from 2015 onward mainly due to the international coalition to defeat ISIS. By 2019 the group lost virtually all of its territory in Iraq and Syria and had lost its leader, al-Baghdadi, following a US military operation which led to his death.

Although suffering major defeat ISIS is still present in both Iraq and Syria and has managed to maintain the cohesion and integrity of its organizational structure as well as its leadership control system. Moreover, the group’s branches or provinces are still active in a number of countries maintaining some of the reach they previously had when the group was at its strongest. To some degree, the group enjoys relative freedom of movement through mobile groups that can launch attacks in fragile security areas in both Syria and Iraq. ISIS also managed to replace al-Baghdadi with Muhammad Said Abdal Rahman al-Mawla commonly known as Abu Ibrahim Al-Hashimi Al-Quraishi though it has been reported that Al-Quraishi may be a temporary Emir or leader given his alleged Turkmen, as opposed to Arab, ethnicity. According to ISIS’s interpretation of Islamic law the Caliph must be a descendent of the Quraish-Hashemite tribe.

The implications of ISIS resurging amid a covid-19 outbreak in Syria could be significant. The Syrian government, already concerned with maintaining a fragile ceasefire with Turkish forces, now has to contain an outbreak of the coronavirus which proves to be a herculean task for developed countries. The coronavirus outbreak in Syria could lead to a new humanitarian crisis. Such a crisis in Syria could further destabilize the war-torn country. It is likely that ISIS will attempt to take advantage of the conditions in Syria and attempt to take further villages and towns. Considering ISIS’s proven capability to take territory quickly and in large swaths, the threat is all that greater. But the coronavirus can also hinder ISIS’s resurgence as  members and potential recruits may be infected with the virus and are liable to spread it to other members. Yet this does not diminish the threat of a high-level attack during a period where security in Syria is further weakened due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Evaluating President Moon’s electoral “success” in South Korea

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South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, and his left-of-centre Democratic Party, in tandem with an affiliate Party created for the elections, gave the Conservative opposition United Future Party – a shellacking in the April 15thParliamentary Elections, winning three-fifths of the 300 House of Assembly seats. The stellar performance of the Progressives gained it 51 seats, and a super-majority to potentially grant President Moon’s reform agenda an easier ride through legislature. This was the largest legislative election victory by any party since South Korea’s Democratic dispensation in 1987.

The new reality for leaders and governments across the globe, seems that Citizenry judge them writ large through the lens of Public Health Policy – in the face of the scourge and terror that Covid-19 has unleashed. The question was how President Moon’s government and Health officials were dealing with the Virus? The Election results seems to have justified his handling of the Health crisis.

“The challenge for us has been how to protect the suffrage of the people and at the same time install safeguards to minimize the danger of infection that could happen during the election,” said Kim Gang-lip, a vice health minister and senior coordinator for the government’s war against the coronavirus.

Mr Gang-lip’s comments puts matters into some perspective. Luminaries in the practice of Democracy like Britain and France postponed elections; and America is in the grip of a political feud over mail-in voting versus in-person voting during the up coming Presidential elections in November. It sounds like Democracy is in perilous times – at risk as the Coronavirus lets reap.

In February, South Korea was second to China in the number of Covid-19 infections recorded. But through the policy of widespread testing, isolation, and treatment, managed to significantly flatten its curve. It turns out President Moon’s government’s handling of the pandemic imbued the electorate with confidence in his leadership, and rewarded his Democratic Party, and its affiliate. The elections against this backdrop, took on added significance – to preserve Democracy, and to keep the public safe.

Strict safety measures were put in place to forestall any potential spread of the Virus. Voting officials screened Voters for high temperature, and requested them to stand at three-foot distance from one another, wear face masks, use hand sanitizer and wear disposable gloves before casting their ballots. The New York Times reported that more than 13,000 South Koreans serving the mandatory 14-day quarantine who wanted to cast their ballots were escorted by officials to do so after polling stations closed officially at 6pm, and many others with mild symptoms used mail voting. Voter turn-out was 66.2 percent – the highest it’s been since 1992.

Observers of Politics in the Korean peninsula would concur that President Moon’s Legislative election victory, and the laudatory assessment his public health policies have both received – is the easier part of the equation.

The next set of hurdles ostensibly are steeper, and the question is how President Moon Jae-in would parlay his increased political capital from the election towards improving security and economic ties with North Korea. President Moon has been an unwavering crusader and instigator of diplomatic rapprochement between Washington and Pyongyang. The dichotomy in South Korea over relations with North Korea runs along party lines, and was at play in the elections. Mr Moon’s liberal party favouring a détente, while the Conservatives prefer the status quo – with South Korea’s security enmeshed in its bilateral security cooperation with Washington.

President Moon’s hand is strengthened by this crushing electoral victory of the Conservative alliance. His hankering for North Korea’s leader Kim Jung-un and President Trump to reach a denuclearization deal feeds into his vision for a Joint Inter-Korean economic venture – believing that South Korea’s security is best served under the aegis of a bilateral economic cooperation between both sides of the peninsula.

“South Korean conservatives will intensify their criticism of President Moon’s engagement policies for going too far, too fast with North Korea,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

To make matters fraught for President Moon, his détente strategy is substantially dependent on President Trump and Kim Jung-un of North Korea reaching an agreement – two leaders with capricious characteristics. Commentators see that as walking on eggshells.

The economy is expected to face critical head winds from Covid-19 induced global recession. Bloomberg reports a 1.4% contraction of GDP on last Quarter, and there is more bad news to come from the Labour market.  How does the President address the misstep of a controversial close cabinet member Cho Kuk, who was dogged by ethical and financial malfeasance that sparked rallies demanding the resignation of the Justice Minister late in 2019?

Former Governor of New York State, Mario Cuomo once said: “We campaign in Poetry, and govern in prose”. That aphorism well applies in the aftermath of President Moon’s electoral success. Despite a sequence of wins in Presidential, Local, and Legislative elections, failure to take a pragmatic approach governing domestic and International affairs, throw-in the mix a potential for the resurgence of Covid-19 infections, and a perfect storm emerges. That could come at a heavy political price. South Korea’s political climate can be that volatile.